I’ve set out to uncover the truth around low calorie natural sweeteners like Stevia, Monk Fruit & Yacon Syrup to find out whether they’re any different from non-natural artificial sweeteners.
If you’ve been reading the news lately, you may have seen the new developments in the area of artificial sweeteners. A recent 2017 systematic review has found that artificial sweeteners like Splenda and aspartame may cause weight gain and other serious health problems. Check out my post on artificial sweeteners and weight gain here where I explore some of these claims. Hearing this news may have triggered a variety of reactions. The first one might be: “I don’t believe it and until they ban them, I’m still using em”. Or maybe your reaction was: “What the F, #ByeFelicia!”. Or maybe your reaction looked like this: “it’s all good, I use low calorie NATURAL sweeteners, like Stevia so I’m in the clear”.
All of these reactions are totally valid, but for a while now I’ve questioned the super powers of Stevia and whether low calorie natural sweeteners are the way to go are really any different than the artificial stuff. To answer these questions, I’ve set out to uncover whether natural low calorie sweeteners, like Stevia, carry any of the potential dangers that artificial sweeteners have and whether natural necessarily equates to healthy.
What are Artificial Sweeteners?
Artificial sweeteners are referred to as VERY low calorie sweeteners and have a higher intensity of sweetness per gram compared to common caloric sweeteners. You can find these sweeteners in diet soft drinks, yoghurts, desserts and gum. You can also purchase sweetener all on its lonesome to add to baking and beverages. As you can see from this handy dandy infographic here, Stevia extract is considered part of the artificial sweetener family, however the only difference is that it is extracted from nature and not synthetically made in a laboratory.
Artificial Sweeteners vs. Low Calorie Natural Sweeteners – Are They One in the Same?
Low Calorie Natural Sweetener 1: Stevia
The hottest newest addition to the artificial sweetener list is Stevia. Stevia is not like the other sweeteners because it’s found naturally from the leaves of the stevia plant native to South America. Stevia is sold as a liquid or powder sweetener. Before it was used as a sweetener, stevia was used for medicinal purposes and historically, indigenous groups used stevia leaves to sweeten herbal teas.
There are two forms of stevia that you should know about. The first one is purified stevia extract which is approved and regulated by Health Canada. It’s considered safe for consumption. The other form of stevia, unrefined stevia extracts, leaves and powders is not regulated by Health Canada. The unrefined version is considered a Natural Health Product (NHP) and is seen more as a medicinal product. Less is known about this unrefined type of Stevia and it’s unclear about its safety. In the United States Stevia is not needed to be approved by the FDA because it’s considered safe for use in food but in both Canada and the US, stevia leaf and crude stevia extracts are not considered safe and have not been approved for use in food.
Since governments have deemed purified stevia extract safe, the question remains, does it carry any health benefits and if not, could it cause weight gain and other health problems like the other artificial sweeteners?
First of all, in the 2017 systematic review stevia was one of the sweeteners examined, which means chronic consumption of stevia may lead to possible weight gain. Having said that, there is some research that shows that stevia may lower blood pressure. In a double-blind placebo-controlled trial, when oral stevia was given to 106 Chinese hypertensive subjections, after 3 months, their systolic and diastolic blood pressure decreased significantly compared to the control group. This was also shown in a study with rats, here and here. It’s also important to mention that these three studies were conducted in 1998 and 2000. A more recent 2010 systematic review found that two long term studies demonstrated that stevia may be effective at lowering blood pressure in hypertensive patients, however the results from shorter studies did not support those findings. That 2010 review was the most recent evidence I could find on the subject, and researchers concluded that further research with long-term investigation is necessary to make a more convincing claim that stevia carries any superior health benefits.
LOW CAL Natural Sweetener 2: Monk Fruit
Photo: Carl99 / Getty
Another natural sweetener is monk fruit. Monk fruit resembles a green melon and was first used by Buddhist monks. The fruit’s extract is used as a sweetener and is considered by the FDA as generally safe. Monk fruit gets its sweetness from antioxidants known as mogrosides. Monk fruit was not included in the recent 2017 review, but I did find a few studies looking at its effects. As of yet, no studies have looked at monk fruit and its effect on weight specifically, but I did find one recent 2017 study that compared aspartame, monk fruit, stevia and sucrose on energy intake. In the randomized study, 30 healthy male subjects were allocated to four treatment groups (aspartame, stevia, monk fruit, sucrose). Subjects were given the same standard breakfast in the morning, and then were given a beverage containing one of four sweeteners. Lunch was given an hour after and their energy intake was observed as well as their blood sugars. The study found that those who had any of the artificial or low calorie natural sweeteners ate more than those who ate the regular sugar drink. It seems that any energy they ‘saved’ with the artificial sweeteners was fully compensated at the meal to yield no difference in daily energy intake between the treatment groups. The glucose response also did not differ between all groups. There also was no difference in the outcome when people consumed the artificial (aspartame) vs the natural low calorie sweeteners (monk or stevia). Not surprisingly, when people think they’re eating something low calorie, they feel they’re being “good” so they binge on unhealthy foods. You know, I call it the Diet Coke and Supersize fry effect.
It is clear that at least with regards to weight management that monk fruit and stevia are both treated very much like other artificial sweeteners despite coming from natural sources.
Low Calorie Natural Sweetener 3: Yacon Syrup
Photo: Authority Nutrition
I also wanted to touch on a fairly new trend which is the use of Yacon syrup as a low cal natural sweetener. Yacon syrup has recently become popular as a weight loss aid.
Yacon syrup is extracted from the roots of the Yacon plant, which is found in the Andes mountains in South America. Like the monk fruit and stevia, the Yacon plant has been used for centuries as a medicinal tool. You might even mistake a Yacon root for a sweet potato. Through a very natural process, a tasty syrup resembling maple syrup, is extracted and filtered for use. Now, Yacon syrup isn’t a zero-calorie sweetener, but it does contain one third of the caloric value of sugar so it is considered a low-calorie sweetener. You’re probably asking… how did this ancient root vegetable become a new weight loss fad? Well, you can thank America’s favourite doctor: Dr. Oz. Not surprisingly, all of the research supporting the weight loss benefits of Yacon syrup come from one single study. In the 2009 study women consuming Yacon syrup lost 33 pounds over a period of 120 days compared to the placebo group. This was a super short study, with a small sample group, and there could have been a variety of factors that contributed to their weight loss (change in diet, increasing physical activity). Plus, this study was done back in 2009, and there haven’t really been any new studies to support these findings or that are even studying Yacon syrup since then.
I can confidently tell you guys that based on the VERY little research on yacon syrup, this sweetener isn’t a weight loss aid in itself but does carry some key nutrients. Yacon syrup contains 40-50% fructooligosaccharides, which we cannot digest and pass through our digestive system. Fructooligosaccharides also contain inulin fibre which is a prebiotic that acts as a food source for the beneficial bacteria in our gut. So, if you want to get your prebiotic fix or cut back on sugar, sure go for it, but don’t rely on it as a reliable weight loss tool on its own.
Bottom line on Low Cal Natural Sweeteners vs Artificial Sweeteners
Listen, I am all for natural foods. Meaning, I strongly advocate for eating food that is as minimally processed as possible. But to say that these low calorie natural sweeteners are a completely separate breed from artificial sweeteners is possibly not true. We still need a ton more research on most of them to catch up with the research we have on traditional artificial sweeteners, but ultimately, I think we should be focusing less on which sweetener to use and more on how much sweetener we’re using.
Now I want to hear from you!
Have you heard of monk fruit or Yacon syrup before?
What’s your reaction to the recent study on sweeteners?
What’s your go-to sweetener of choice!
Comment below with your thoughts!
Sofia Tsalamlal, MHSc, RD
Abbey Sharp is a Registered Dietitian, an avid food writer and blogger, a cookbook author and the founder of Abbey’s Kitchen Inc.