What is a natural sweetener?

Natural sweeteners are typically less refined than table sugar and generally have more vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Because of this, you’ll find various sources touting the health benefits of natural sweeteners such as date and coconut sugar, agave, maple syrup and honey. But before we get too excited, let’s take a closer look at the most popular natural sweeteners and determine the best ways to include these sugar substitutes in our day-to-day lives.

 Watch out for nutrient claims

Be wary of the claim that natural sweeteners are chock full of vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants. It is true that dates have a lot of potassium, agave plants are a source of fibre and the meat and milk of coconuts are sources of nutrients such as zinc. But here is where the problems lie:

1.     Whether you’re stirring a bit of sweetener into your morning oatmeal or using it in baking, the amount you end up eating doesn’t really contribute to your nutrient intake. If you wanted to include maple syrup as a source of zinc, you’d need to down 6 Tbsp. to get 10% of your daily needs. This is the greatest issue with natural sweeteners.

2.     Some natural sweeteners don’t have the nutrients you think they have. When it comes to a sweetener such as agave, the sugar isn’t made from the same part of the plant that boasts all the nutrients. Agave nectar comes from the sugary fluid inside of the plant that has no fibre in it.

 They still raise blood sugar

 Watch out for the claim that natural sweeteners won’t raise blood sugar. It is true that some natural sweeteners, such as coconut sugar, maple syrup and agave, won’t raise blood sugar as much as table sugar because of their lower glycemic index (GI). But this doesn’t mean they don’t affect blood sugar at all. And remember that the sweetener becomes a part of whatever you use it in. Consider a cookie with chocolate, raisins and flour. Using a low GI sweetener in the cookie doesn’t make it low GI.

Natural sweeteners are processed too

 We’re all encouraged to choose foods that are less processed, so the claim that natural sweeteners are less refined than table sugar is attractive. Date sugar is a great example. It’s simply made from grinding whole dates into a fine powder. However, coconut sugar requires heat (a form of processing) to boil down the nectar of the coconut plant’s flowers. Likewise, agave requires heat or enzymes to break down the complex carbohydrates into fructose. While this is less processed than table sugar, the refining method will likely change some of the nutrient and antioxidant properties.

 What about stevia?

Good question! Stevia is a natural sweetener made from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudianaplant. Like natural sweeteners, it is found in nature. However, like artificial sweeteners, stevia is calorie free and provides no nutrition to the body. Because it’s calorie free, it won’t raise blood sugar levels. As for processing, the method to make stevia extract is like that used for refining sugar. Purified stevia extract, what you would find in the grocery store, has undergone a safety review and is approved by Health Canada.


Bottom line

So where does this leave us? Let’s look past the health halo of natural sweeteners. While natural sweeteners aren’t simply sugar in disguise, they are closely related, and are low on the list of nutrient-dense foods.

With this being said, the small choices we make throughout the day do add up. Replacing (key word replacing) table sugar with a natural sweetener is not a bad idea. But, natural sweeteners shouldn’t be used more freely than table sugar, or used to justify eating 10 cookies just because they are made with coconut sugar. Use these sweeteners to enhance taste, not for nutrition. Adding date sugar to a nutrient-packed food, such as oatmeal, to make it tastier is a great idea. Adding coconut sugar to the coffee you typically drink black, not so much.

Share this post

Kristina Isaac, RD.

Registered Dietitian

Kristina (BSc, RD) is a registered dietitian and blogger for Nourish Move Thrive. She enjoys finding creative, fun and simple ways to communicate the science of nutrition.

Sign up to receive Nourish Move Thrive updates twice a month!