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The Truth about ''Natural'' Sweeteners

Does Sugar by Any Other Name Still Taste as Sweet?
  -- By Liza Barnes & Nicole Nichols, Health Educators
If you’ve wandered into a natural food store lately, you might have noticed that the selection of sweeteners seems to have multiplied. Powders, syrups, and liquids with exotic-sounding names catch your eye, each claiming to be tastier, healthier, or more environmentally-friendly than plain old table sugar. But are they really any better? Is it worth the extra expense and hassle of deviating from the mainstream to try “natural” sweeteners? Whether you choose natural, artificial or conventional sweeteners is up to you. This article provides a rundown of the most common types of “natural” sweeteners you’ll find on the market to help you decide.

Sugarcane Sweeteners
Sugarcane is a tropical grass that has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. Making what we know as table sugar from sugarcane can range from a relatively simple to a multistep process, and the final result varies depending on the specific steps in the process. Light and dark brown, powdered, and granulated white sugars are all highly refined, while others, like those listed below, are made with fewer steps on the processing chain. Fewer steps benefit the environment, because less processing means less environmental impact. It also means that more of the vitamins and minerals that naturally occur in sugarcane remain in the end product. All of these sugarcane sweeteners can be found in the baking aisle and/or bulk bins of natural foods stores. Non-Sugarcane Sweeteners
Natural sweeteners are flooding the market these days. Here’s a rundown of some of the most common ones that are not made from sugarcane. Here’s a chart of how these sweeteners compare with one another and with regular table sugar:

Sweetener Serving size Calories Carbs Other nutrients of note
White (table) sugar 2 tsp 33 8 g None*
Blackstrap molasses 2 tsp 32 8 g Manganese (18% DV), copper (14% DV), iron (13% DV), calcium (12% DV), potassium (10% DV), magnesium (7%DV), vitamin B6 (5% DV), selenium (4% DV)
Rapadura 2 tsp 30 8 g None*
Sucanat 2 tsp 30 8 g None*
Turbinado sugar 2 tsp 30 8 g None*
Evaporated cane juice 2 tsp 30 8 g Riboflavin (3% DV), potassium (1% DV), manganese (1% DV), copper (1% DV), iron (1% DV)
Agave nectar syrup 2 tsp 40 8 g None*
Brown rice syrup 2 tsp 40 10 g None*
Honey 2 tsp 43 11 g None*
Maple syrup 2 tsp 45 9 g Manganese (22% DV), zinc (4% DV)

*Less than 0.5% DV of any vitamins or minerals

SparkPeople's Licensed and Registered Dietitian, Becky Hand, notes that published recommendations say to limit added sugars from all sources to no more than 10%-15% of total calorie intake, which is 120 calories (7.5 tsp) of sugar for a 1,200-calorie diet. 

The bottom line is that sugar is sugar. Too much sugar—whether it’s marketed as “natural” or not—can harm your health.  Even sweeteners touted as natural or nutritious, like the ones discussed here, don’t typically add a significant source of vitamins or minerals to your diet. But in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with the sweetness that a little sugar adds to life. So if you’re going to eat it, eat the good stuff...just not too much of it. (Need help figuring out where hidden sugar may be lurking in your food? Check out this helpful resource from the USDA.)

This article has been reviewed and approved by licensed and registered dietitian, Becky Hand, and Tanya Jolliffe, a SparkPeople healthy eating expert.