Are natural sweeteners better than artificial? From monk fruit to stevia, here's what you need to know.

Are natural sweeteners really better than artificial? Here's what to know. (Image: Getty Images; designed by Victoria Ellis for Yahoo News)
Are natural sweeteners really better than artificial? Here's what to know. (Image: Getty Images; designed by Victoria Ellis for Yahoo News)

There has been much chatter lately about the potential hazards of artificial sweeteners, with aspartame — the popular artificial sweetener found in such beverages as Diet Coke — recently identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” While the debate rages on about whether artificial sweeteners are generally safe to consume or should be avoided, you may be wondering about the alternatives to artificial sweeteners. Is there an option that’s healthier than both artificial sweeteners and white table sugar, which is so often criticized and which got everyone on the artificial kick in the first place?

Enter natural sweeteners, which can also give your food and beverages the sweetness you may crave.

Here’s what you need to know about some of the most popular natural sweeteners out there.


What is it?

Allulose, according to Jessica Sepel, a clinical nutritionist and founder of JS Health, is a sweetener derived from fructose found naturally in foods like figs, raisins, jackfruit and maple syrup.

It was initially discovered in 1940, but it wasn’t until 1994 that Ken Izumori at Kagawa University in Japan found a way to convert fructose to allulose, using an enzyme. In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowed allulose to be listed as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS), though it has not been approved in the European Union or in Canada.

One registered dietitian, Scott Keatley of Keatley Medical Nutrition Therapy, says that chemically, allulose is classified as a “rare sugar, because it's found in nature but only in small amounts.” He adds, “You can use allulose as a sugar substitute in many recipes, especially in baking, as it behaves much like regular sugar in terms of texture and caramelization.”

Does it have calories or nutritional value?

Sepel says that while allulose does contain a “very small amount of calories,” it is “not absorbed and it does not contribute to your daily caloric intake.” According to Keatley, allulose contains "about 0.2-0.4 calories per gram, significantly less than regular table sugar (sucrose), which has about 4 calories per gram.”

Are there any potential health effects?

While the FDA recognizes allulose as safe to eat, Keatley notes that “as with other sugars, consuming excessive amounts might lead to digestive issues such as bloating, gas and diarrhea.”

“Because it's a sugar, it may also trigger a dopamine response and cause cravings for more sweets,” Keatley adds.

Monk fruit

What is it?

“Monk fruit, also known as luo han guo, is a small round fruit native to southern China,” says Keatley. The fruit, whose name comes from the Buddhist monks who first cultivated it, “contains sweet compounds called mogrosides, which are processed into a noncaloric sweetener,” he adds.

Does it have calories or nutritional value?

Monk fruit does not contain calories or carbs, says Keatley, making it a “go-to choice” for people on a ketogenic diet who still want sweetness.

Are there any potential health effects?

“The sweet taste comes from mogroside, which is an antioxidant. It may also have anti-inflammatory effects,” says Sepel. “However, as the dose to sweeten would be so small, it is not clear whether these effects will occur.”


What is it?

Stevia is derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant. The sweetener is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, meaning that you only need a small amount to sweeten food, says Keatley.

Does it have calories or nutritional value?

Stevia is calorie-free.

Are there any potential health effects?

Stevia has a complicated history. Early studies suggested that stevia caused cancer, and the FDA banned it in 1991. However, that changed in 1995, per VeryWell Health. The FDA revised the ban on stevia leaves and extracts and allowed them to be used as dietary supplements — but not as sweeteners. In 2008, the FDA said that designated high-purity (95% minimum purity) stevia extracts were generally regarded as safe (GRAS), but stevia leaf and crude stevia extract are still not recognized as GRAS.

“Whole-leaf stevia or crude extracts are not approved, due to concerns about control of blood sugar and effects on the kidneys, cardiovascular system and reproductive system,” says Keatley.

While there's no established limit for stevia, it should be used in moderation, he adds, as “consuming large amounts might lead to digestive issues, and it can develop a nasty aftertaste.”


What is it?

Tagatose, according to Keatley, is a naturally occurring low-calorie monosaccharide sugar derived from lactose, found in some fruits, cacao and dairy products.

Does it contain calories or nutritional value?

Tagatose has about 1.5 calories per gram, which is less than the 4 calories per gram found in regular sugar,” says Keatley. “It has a minimal impact on blood sugar levels and insulin response. In addition, it may be a non-addictive sugar, as it comes from lactose, which is known not to induce a dopamine response.”

Are there any potential health effects?

Sepel says that tagatose can cause “mild gastrointestinal effects, such as nausea, diarrhea and flatulence.” These side effects have been found to occur at a dosage of 30 grams per day.

More research is necessary, but early findings suggest that tagatose may help to control blood sugar, making it a good option for diabetics.

Are natural sweeteners better for you than artificial sweeteners?

The jury is still out, but experts say there is reason to consider natural sweeteners. “Natural sweeteners have less potential baggage," says Keatley. "You’re getting a highly digestible sweetness that isn’t going to raise your blood sugar, cause an insulin response and make your body more susceptible to storing fat. With artificial sweeteners, they can come with other aspects, like upset stomach and possible insulin resistance. What is best depends on the individual’s needs and goals.”

“There are pros and cons to using both natural and artificial sweeteners, but the advice I like to give to my clients is that using natural sweeteners in small amounts is usually preferable," Megan Hilbert, a registered dietitian with Top Nutrition Coaching who specializes in gut health, tells Yahoo News. "Many sweeteners are only partially absorbed, and so they enter our large intestine, meaning they impact our microbiota. Some studies show that this may impact on the health of our gut. There are also other studies that link the use of artificial sweeteners to conditions like obesity and cancer, but it's important to note that the research is ongoing and many of the studies showing these links were done in animals, not humans.”

Sepel, however, says that while she prefers natural to artificial sweeteners, there’s another way to get the same flavor without either. “I really love adding sweetness with less processed sugar alternatives — such as fruit, dates, honey and maple syrup — as my first choice,” she says.

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