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So-Called Natural Sweeteners That Are Not-So-Natural

Debra Redalia


Is Industrially processed stevia powder a “natural” sweetener?


I was just about to send out my newsletter with the post Maple Syrup and Sugar: The Sweetener of Spring when I received an email promoting an article about sugar alternatives that “won’t poison you.”

I had to click through, of course, and find out what these “sugar alternatives” were.

They turned out to be:
1. xylitol
2. stevia
3. raw honey
4. molasses

These were presented in the article as “natural solutions.”

But are these sweeteners actually as they occur in nature? Are they whole foods?

Of the four, only raw honey is a whole, unrefined natural food. Organic raw honey is sold just as it comes from the hive (although some supermarket brands are diluted with corn syrup and other additives, so read labels carefully).

Molasses is what is leftover after whole natural sugar cane is industrially refined into white sugar. It’s the part that contains all the nutrients of the whole sugar cane, but it’s not a whole food and contains all the contaminants that are added during industrial processing.

Xylitol and Stevia come from whole, natural plant sources, but are hyper-refined to extract only the sweet part.

I understand it’s tempting to call xylitol and stevia natural. But it’s nothing more than an industrial trick. Yes, these and many other so-called “natural” food ingredients can be called natural because a natural plant or animal or mineral is the raw material that enters the industrial process (rather than crude oil or other forms of petroleum). But the processing is so complete that not only has the material lost all its aliveness, but it’s not even recognizable as something that exists in Nature. Our bodies can’t process these refined sweeteners that are a product of industry because they lack the co-factors present in the original whole food.

Years ago when I was writing my natural sweetener blog Sweet Savvy, I included both xylitol and stevia in my list of natural sweeteners, because they came from a natural source. But then I observed the difference between eating processed foods and whole foods and can no longer consider these sweeteners to be natural—because they are not in their natural state as found in Nature.

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol derived from xylose, a crystalline sugar found in birch bark. This is not even remotely natural. Try eating some birch bark right off the tree. This is an industrial product. The original material put into the industrial process is birch bark, but the industrial process breaks it down so much it is not recognizable as a birch tree. (By the way, if you want to eat the sweetest of birch trees, try birch syrup, made from the sap of birch trees, tapped much like maple syrup. This is a natural, unprocessed wholefood.)

Stevia is an herb that has a sweetness, but it also very bitter. The first time I used stevia it was as a powdered dried herb. I made brownies and used the full amount to replace white sugar. They were inedible. As time passed, stevia became available as industrial sweetener products that were more and more refined. So if you use stevia nowadays, it is as refined as white sugar, if not more. If you want to use it as a sweetener, grow it in your back yard and pick it fresh to steep with your ice tea, or put it in smoothies. It is very easy to grow and I usually have it in my garden.

Our bodies are designed by Nature to fit into the whole of the system of Life. Everything we need to be healthy and live is found in Nature. Foods we should be eating, such as raw fruit, are sweet and attract us to eat them. For this reason, it is natural for us to be attracted to sweet foods. But there is a difference between eating a luscious ripe fruit full of water, nutrients and fiber, and a refined candy bar. It doesn’t matter if it’s organically grown—if it’s refined and in industrially packaging, it’s an industrial product.

I’ve noticed that as I have stopped eating refined sweets, and instead eat fruit or fruit-sweetened foods, I much prefer the sweetness of the fruit. It’s what my body was designed to desire. But we are trained by our industrial society to want industrial foods.

These days my preferred sweeteners are (in order of preference)

  • fresh fruits and their juices
  • dried fruits (particularly dates (and date paste, date sugar, and date syrup) and raisins
  • raw honey (has many health benefits)
  • maple syrup (a teaspoon per serving)

When I eat these sweet foods in their wholefood forms, I have little desire for refined sweeteners or sweets.