Artificial Sweeteners: How Natural is Natural?

A common theory about is taste is that there is a strong correlation between an individual’s consumption of a particular flavour and his / her preferred intensity. For this reason two individuals might have varying descriptions, in terms of flavour, of the same food product. Natural sugar alternatives have popularised in the last decade due to an increased awareness of the harmful effects of consuming too much sugar.

Although nature provides us with many natural alternatives to processed sugar like honey, jaggery, coconut sugar, maple syrup, etc. none of them can be used in their natural form in large scale food production. When untampered with, they do not have the requisite neutrality or stability to work with a wide range of products. Secondly, when compared to their synthetic alternatives like HFCS and sugar alcohols, these alternatives are more expensive and can be difficult to source at in consistent manner.

In order to address the rising demand for healthier substitutes to processed sugars, manufacturers have found a sweet spot wherein they can sell seemingly natural alternatives to unassuming consumers under the pretext of it being natural and healthy.

Agave Nectar / Syrup:

Agave Nectar / Syrup is procured from a spiky cactus like plant native to South America. In its natural form, agave is said to be approximately 1.5 sweeter than sugar, with a slight caramel like flavour. Its natural chemical composition shows it to have a higher fructose content than HFCS, which means it has more number of calories that HFCS. Although labelled raw by many sellers, the agave syrup available to us in markets is actually heavily processed (to make it easy to package, use and sell).

Stevia:

An extremely popular option today, Setiva is a relative of the Chrysanthemum plant (native to Paraguay) which has been used to sweeten drinks since the stone age. When chewed, dried or brewed, these green leaves release a sweetness that is almost forty times more potent than processed sugar. Unlike Agave, Stevia has a zero calorific value, making it extremely marketable. However, stevia has a strong almost liquorice like after taste which is not easy to mask without some level of processing. Stevia based sugar substitutes available in the market almost 200 to 300 times sweeter than table sugar due to the amount of processing it undergoes.

Monk Fruit:

One of the lesser known natural alternatives, Monk Fruit is slowly picking up traction within the sugar industry. Also know as Luo Han Guo, it is similar to gourd and contains compounds that are said to be almost 300 times sweeter than sugar. Like stevia, monk fruit too has zero calorific value in its unprocessed natural form. Locals have used it for centuries to sweeten food as well as in eastern traditional medicine.

Finding an alternative to processed sugar that is all natural, just as sweet, chemically alike and calorie-light is almost impossible. Natural sweeteners like Stevia and Agave undergo considerable amounts of processing before they reach the end consumer, defeating the very purpose of it being a healthier alternative. Ultimately, it comes down to which aspects of sugar we wish to enjoy and which ones we are ok to replace. Anything in a natural form, but not necessarily sweeter, would logically seem like the healthier option. However, if our end goal is to consume less sugar, artificial or otherwise, substitutes will do little to get us there.

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