Three Natural Alternatives to Sugar
In the natural product industry, there is generally a preference to avoid sugars (sucrose, fructose, corn syrup, etc.) as sweetening agents, as well as certain other artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame, etc.). Instead, there is a preference for natural sugar alternatives. These may be divided into two categories: non-caloric, natural sugar alternatives, and caloric sugar alternatives.
Non-caloric, Natural Sugar Alternatives
The two primary natural sugar alternatives that are non-caloric and GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) are Stevia (or more specifically its compound, rebaudioside A) and Monk's fruit.
Stevia is a genus of herbs and shrubs in the sunflower family, cultivated for the sweetness of its leaves. Stevia’s sweetness occurs more slowly and lasts longer duration than sugar. The limitation of stevia is that its extracts generally have a bitter aftertaste, sometimes described as licorice-like. The compounds in stevia providing its sweet taste are called steviol glycosides, and provide up to 300 times the sweetness of sugar. The major steviol glycosides are stevioside and rebaudioside A (aka, RebA).[i] Whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts have not had GRAS approval as a food additive, but are nonetheless often used as ingredients in products without declaring their use as a sweetener. In contrast, rebaudioside A products derived from stevia have all received GRAS approval as sweeteners.[ii]
Monk’s fruit or Luo han guo (Siraitia grosvenorii) has been used for hundreds of years in China as a natural sweetener and as a traditional medicine.[iii] The dried fruit is used in whole, in powder form or in blocks for beverages, seasoning, in herbal soups, teas, cakes and candy. A naturally produced Monk’s fruit concentrate that is non-caloric and is 300 times sweeter than sugar was developed, accepted by the FDA and registered as GRAS.[iv] The sweet taste of this fruit is primarily a result of a group of triterpene glycosides called mogrosides that make up about 1% of the flesh of the fresh fruit. Via extraction, a fruit powder containing 80% mogrosides can be produced.[v]
Caloric Sugar Alternatives
In the purposes of this discussion, the caloric sugar alternatives discussed will be sugar alcohols, which are compounds that occur naturally and can be found in many fruits, vegetables, and other plant sources. Examples of sugar alcohols include erythritol, mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol. The primary advantages of sugar alcohols are that they do not contribute to tooth decay, [vi] and they offer more sweetening for fewer calories. However, sugar alcohols may cause bloating and diarrhea when consumed in excessive amounts,[vii] so their use as a sugar alternative is really limited to inclusion in small amounts. An exception is erythritol, of which 90% is absorbed into the bloodstream while about 10% enters the colon.[viii] Because most of it does not enter the large intestine, it does not tend to cause the laxative effects found with the higher consumption of other sugar alcohols.[ix] Nevertheless, consumption over 50 grams (1.8 oz) can still cause a significant increase in nausea and stomach rumbling.[x]
Stevia and Monk's fruit are viable, non-caloric sugar alternatives that can be used to sweeten foods and powdered dietary supplements in the natural products industry. As a caloric sugar alternative, sugar alcohols may also be used, but more sparingly.
[iii] Arrigoni E, Brouns F, Amadò R. (Nov 2005). Human gut microbiota does not ferment erythritol. Br J Nutr. 2005; 94 (5): 643–6.
[iv] Munro IC, Berndt WO, Borzelleca JF, et al. (December 1998). Erythritol: an interpretive summary of biochemical, metabolic, toxicological and clinical data. Food Chem. Toxicol. 1998;36 (12): 1139–74.
[v] Storey D, Lee A, Bornet F, Brouns F. (Mar 2007). Gastrointestinal tolerance of erythritol and xylitol ingested in a liquid. Eur J Clin Nutr.2007;61 (3): 349–54.
[vi] Abdullateef RA, Osman M. Studies on effects of pruning on vegetative traits in Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni (Compositae). International Journal of Biology. 2012;4(1):146-153.
[vii] What refined Stevia preparations have been evaluated by FDA to be used as a sweetener? U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Last updated 04/10/2014. Retrieved April 13, 2014 from http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/Basics/ucm214865.htm.
[viii] Li C, Lin LM, Sui F, et al. Chemistry and pharmacology of Siraitia grosvenorii: A review. Chin J Nat Med. 2014 Feb;12(2):89-102.
[ix] Lim TK. Edible Medicinal And Non-Medicinal Plants: Volume 2, Fruits. Springer Sceince+Business Media B.V.; 2012:392-400.
[x] Dharmananda S. Luo han guo: Sweet fruit used as sugar substitute and medicinal herb. Institute for Traditional Medicine Online. 2004. Retrieved April 12, 2014 from http://www.itmonline.org/arts/luohanguo.htm.
About the Author: Gene Bruno
Gene Bruno, MS, MHS, RH(AHG) - With decades of experience working along side healthcare professionals and natural product retailers, developing innovative nutraceutical formulations, and working with academic institutions, Gene has cultivated a truly unique and impressive catalog of nutraceutical knowledge and insights.