Natural Sweeteners can be divided into two categories: Those that contain calories, and those that don't.
The most common natural sweeteners are Honey, Stevia, Maple Syrup, Coconut Palm Sugar and Molasses. All of these contain calories with the exception of Stevia. Please note that I do not include Agave Syrup in the list as I do not regard it as a natural or healthy product. (Like high fructose corn syrup enzymes are used to convert the Agave starch to fructose. Natural Agave is barely sweet at all!)
When choosing the best natural sweetener one needs to consider calories, effect on blood sugar, effect on dental hygiene, beneficial effects, taste, price and usefulness in cooking.
This is a long list and needless to say different sweeteners are better in certain ways and for different people. It is also important to consider just how natural the sweetener really is! For example Stevia comes from the leaf of the Stevia plant. However some products sold contain a Stevia extract made from genetically modified plants. Checking the label and insisting on non GM is vital.
We'll first look at the sweeteners that contain calories, and then the so called zero calorie natural sweeteners such as Stevia.
In many cases these are the oldest sweeteners known to man. Before modern times the only sweeteners available were honey and dried fruits such as figs and dates.
Honey, Coconut Palm Sugar, Yacon Syrup, Maple Syrup, Concentrated Fruit Juice and Blackstrap Molasses.
Honey. Honey tastes great and has antiseptic and medical qualities. Ulmo honey from Chile and Manuka honey from New Zealand are particularly good in this regard. Best to choose an organic and raw honey from a reliable apiary. Poorer quality honey can be sourced from bees that are fed sugar, and so is little better than sugar. You get what you pay for! Note that honey is high glycemic and harmful to teeth. In this regard it is no better than sugar, so moderation is key.
Coconut Palm Sugar. Coconut Palm Sugar is a popular natural sweetener that is granulated which makes it convenient to use in place of ordinary sugar. It is mostly produced in a very natural and eco friendly way and is a sustainable form of agriculture. It has a somewhat lower glycemic index than sugar and beneficial nutrients. However it is mostly sucrose so like honey moderation is important. Has a lovely flavor and is great for cooking.
Yacon Syrup. Yacon Syrup comes from the juice of the Yacon root that grows in South America. The sweetness mostly comes from a carbohydrated called Fructo-Oligosaccharides (or FOS for short, and not to be confused with fructose). Consequently is very low calorie, low glycemic and does not cause tooth decay. It is also excellent for the immune system and for intestine health. It is a genuine superfood. The downside? Unfortunately yes there is one... it is very expensive! Great for cooking and for raw chocolate.
Concentrated Fruit Juice. Increasingly, in recent times, concentrated fruit juices are being used as 'healthy' substitutes for sugar. For example energy bars and snacks sold in health food shops are often sweetened this way. Fruit is an excellent source of nutrient and the juice often contains much of the value. However most fruit juices are very high in fructose. Apple juice is almost 60% pure fructose and pear juice is almost 70%. The dangers of fructose have been repeatedly demonstrated scientifically in recent years. So fruit juice is not recommended except in small quantities. In addition fruit juice is very detrimental to teeth, in fact more so than sugar because of the acid present.
Maple Syrup. Maple Syrup has a beautiful and distinct flavor and is high in B vitamins and minerals. It is a totally natural and unrefined product. It is quite expensive, however, and many restaurants provide a flavored form of high fructose corn sweetener. Beware!! Almost all of the sweetness in Maple Syrup come from sucrose (ordinary sugar) so moderation is important. It has a slightly lower glycemic index than sugar but is unsuitable for diabetics.
Blackstrap Molasses. Blackstrap Molasses is made from cane sugar, and is the goodness left over after the refining process. It is very high in nutrients such as Magnesium, Iron, and Potassium. It has a strong flavor and consequently is not suitable for all recipes. Again it is high in sugar so moderation is recommended. Choose the unsulphered variety.
Caloric Natural Sweeteners can be better than sugar because:
1. They can contain more fiber (both soluble and insoluble) and this can help regulate sugar absorption and lower the glycemic index.
2. They often contain important nutrients such as B vitamins and magnesium.
3. They may not contain chemical residues caused by refining processes.
4. They can have medicinal qualities.
5. They tend not to be as addictive as pure sugar or high fructose corn syrup.
However not all are the same and some are more 'natural' than others. In addition they all contain sugars of different types and are consequently harmful to teeth, and like sugar, can cause health problems if taken to excess. Moderation is the key and they should be used instead of refined sugar, not in addition to it.
I have rated then for safety and beneficial effects here. This also links into a detailed page for each one.
It is only relatively recently that these zero calorie sweeteners have appeared on the market in the western world. Indeed most people are still unaware of these products, and believe that all zero calorie sweeteners are artificial. But, as it so happens, natives in West Africa, China and South America have known about, and been using, these sweeteners for hundreds of years.
In the last number of years scientists have analyzed the plants that contain these substances and identified the compounds that are responsible for the sweet taste. So far at least nine have been isolated and four are being commercially produced.
Stevia, Luo Han Guo (Monk Fruit), Glycyrrhizin and Miraculin.
Stevia. Stevia has a slightly bitter aftertaste, though some forms of the extract taste better in this regard. The most natural form is dried leaves and these can be used in cooking etc. It is zero calorie and zero glycemic and appears very safe. It also has the effect of regulating blood sugar levels. It has only recently been approved in the USA and EU and is now on sale in all supermarkets. Newer and better forms are being developed with less aftertaste, though one could question how natural they are.
Monk Fruit. Monk fruit, also known as Luo Han Guo comes from China where the fruit has been used for hundreds of years. The sweetness comes from a substance called mogroside in the flesh of the fruit. Like Stevia it is zero calorie natural sweetener with a glycemic index of zero. It also tastes better than Stevia and has been approved by the FDA for general use. It will soon be available in supermarkets as Tate and Lyle have big plans for it.
Glycyrrhizin. Glycyrrhizin is a natural sweetener that is extracted from licorice root. It is zero calorie and has a glycemic index of zero. Because it has a strong licorice flavor it is mostly used in candies and medicine, and not as a sweetener on it's own. It has medicinal qualities and is used in the treatment of ulcers, and as an expectorant in cough mixtures. Care should be taken to avoid over consumption as it may increase hypertension if taken to excess.
Miraculin. Miraculin comes from the so called 'Miracle Fruit' from West Africa. It alters the taste buds for a period of time, making sour foods taste sweet. It has been used, with some success, to relieve a side effect of Chemotherapy medication which makes food taste metallic. Otherwise it is more a novelty sweetener at this time.
The potential for commercial success with natural sweeteners is very real and the demand for healthy sugar substitutes could be huge. However certain problems still exist:
1. As with artificial sweeteners, it it very difficult to replicate the taste of sugar. Although these products taste sweet, they can taste quite different to sugar, and can take some getting used to.
2. Because they are natural products, they can be difficult or costly to produce on a commercial basis.
3. They face opposition from vested interests currently promoting artificial sweeteners. The good news is that some powerful interests have now begin to swing behind these natural products. Coca Cola has launched a product called Truvia and Pepsi is selling Purvia, both of these are zero calorie natural products with good taste properties.
Of course the actual safety of these products is another issue. Many people assume that because a substance is natural that it is safe. However, for many reasons this may not be so. Many natural substances are harmful if taken to excess, or if refined and isolated from the other material, carbohydrate and fiber of the source plant.
The good news is that most natural zero calorie sweeteners appear to be very safe. They have been used in Japan for many years with no known side effects, and some may even have beneficial effects. Stevia appears to help regulate blood sugar levels and Luo Han Guo appears to have some beneficial medicinal and antioxidant qualities.
A very exciting new sweetener called Brazzein has been isolated from the Oubli climbing plant which is native to West Africa. It has a sweetness profile very close to sugar with no aftertaste. It is also heat stable and water soluble. However it is not yet widely available as problems exist producing it on a commercial scale. However, if these problems can be overcome, it should have a very bright future indeed.
A full list is available on the Natural Sweetener List page, and each is rated for taste and safety. There is also a link to a page with more detailed information including availability.