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Question: I am trying to replace white sugar with natural sugar alternatives such as monk fruit and stevia in my diet. Is this a healthier way to go?

With so many people avoiding sugar, so-called natural alternatives such as honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar and, newer on the scene, monk-fruit sweeteners are becoming popular.

Some of these sweeteners, though, aren’t as natural as you think.

What are ‘natural’ sugars?

Added sugars that are processed to a lesser degree than white (table) sugar are often thought of as “natural” alternatives. Some are also touted as adding valuable vitamins and minerals to your diet.

White sugar is processed and refined from sugarcane or beets; during the refining process, minerals and natural compounds are removed. Carbohydrates aside, white sugar is void of nutrients.

Raw sugar contains trace amounts of minerals because it’s produced when the final refining process is bypassed. Honey and maple syrup, very minimally processed, also contain trace amounts of vitamins and minerals.

Coconut sugar (a.k.a. coconut palm sugar) is made by a natural process of boiling the sap of flower buds from the coconut palm tree until the water is evaporated. The sugar retains some potassium from the sap.

How to rein in your sweet tooth

Still, the amount of nutrients in a tablespoon or two of these more natural sugars is minuscule. And when it comes to calories and carbohydrate content, there’s little or no difference between them and white sugar. (Maple syrup and honey have slightly more calories than table sugar.)

Like white sugar, they are added sugars that need to be limited. Ditto for other healthier-sounding sugars such as brown-rice syrup, organic cane syrup (i.e. organic white sugar) and fruit-juice concentrate.

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Zero-calorie sweeteners like monk fruit and stevia are certainly more “natural” than artificial sweeteners (e.g. aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, acesulfame potassium). But like all added sugars, use them sparingly.Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

What is monk fruit?

Monk-fruit extract is a zero-calorie sweetener that comes from a melon-like fruit that’s grown in China and Thailand. The sweet juice is extracted from the fruit and processed into crystals.

Monk-fruit sweetener is 100 to 250 times sweeter than sugar, thanks to chemical compounds called mogrosides. These sweet-tasting compounds are not absorbed in the digestive tract, so they don’t contribute any calories to the diet.

In 2013, Health Canada approved monk-fruit extract to be used in tabletop sweeteners. In the United States, monk-fruit extract is also allowed to be added to foods and beverages.

Monk-fruit extract is heat stable and can be used in cooking and baking. Because it’s so much sweeter than sugar, only a small amount is needed.

While monk-fruit extract is not as heavily processed as refined sugar, this doesn’t mean monk-fruit sweeteners are 100 per cent pure. Monk-fruit extract is often combined with other sweeteners such as erythritol (a sugar alcohol), and sometimes sugar and molasses, to balance out the taste.

Sugar alcohols are made by adding hydrogen molecules to sugar. Doing so makes them harder to absorb in the small intestine, so they deliver fewer calories than regular sugar does.

Reduced absorption means sugar alcohols end up in the large intestine where they can cause bloating gas and diarrhea if consumed in excess. Compared with other sugar alcohols, erythritol is less likely to cause digestive upset.

Is stevia a natural sweetener?

Stevia sweeteners, 200 to 350 times sweeter than sugar, come from the stevia plant, which grows in South America. Sounds natural, but in fact they’re highly processed.

These zero-calorie sweeteners are made by extracting the plant’s sweet compounds, steviol glycosides, from the leaves of the plant and purifying them to remove bitter compounds. Some steviol glycosides are also made through processes called bioconversion and fermentation.

In Canada, purified steviol glycosides are sold as tabletop sweeteners and they’re also regulated as food additives.

The bottom line: Monk fruit and stevia are more ‘natural’ than artificial sweeteners – but treat them like other added sugars

If you don’t want the calories, monk fruit is less processed than stevia, but it may be harder to find unless you’re buying it online. Both are certainly more “natural” than artificial sweeteners (e.g. aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, acesulfame potassium).

If you prefer to use an added sugar that’s less processed than white sugar, honey, maple syrup and coconut sugar are good choices. But like all added sugars, use them sparingly.

The sugars you don’t need to worry about eating: naturally-occurring sugars such as fructose in fruit and sweet vegetables. These truly natural sugars come packaged with beneficial vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre, which slows their absorption into the bloodstream.

People with diabetes or high blood triglycerides (fats), however, do need to limit the amount of naturally occurring sugars (in addition to added sugars) they consume.

Leslie Beck is a private practice dietitian

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