Natural Sweetener Properties

Originally Published: December 6, 2017
Last Updated: February 9, 2021
Coconut palm sugar, a less-refined sugar, is an example of a natural sweetener.

December 6, 2017 – Generationally speaking, “Millennials are driving consumer clean label expectations deep into the sweetener category,” said Melanie Goulson, General Manager and Principal Scientist at Merlin Development, in her 2017 Clean Label Conference presentation.

Natural sweeteners have been under sustained scrutiny, as consumers of all ages are confronted with news headlines pinning sweetener consumption as an underlying cause behind global obesity, diabetes and circulatory diseases. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that adults and children reduce “free sugar” consumption (i.e., sugars added to foods) to less than 10% of total calories consumed, but said “5% would be even better.” That same year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published its 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines—also recommending sugar consumption be reduced to less than 10% of calories per day. And, as of July 2018, U.S. food and beverage nutritional label panels might need to distinguish between naturally present sugars and “added sugars.” [Editor’s note: This deadline might be extended, pending review by the new administration.]

“Given that there exists no legal definition for ‘clean label,’much is open to consumer interpretation,” explained Goulson. “Here is my own version of a clean label lexicon: simple, familiar, natural, organic, local, whole, fresh, real, sustainable, transparent, trustworthy, authentic, ethical, wholesome, safe, healthy and nutritious.”

Goulson believes consumer expectations of sweeteners are akin to the concept of nutrient density: Consumers want sweeteners that offer some redeeming value along with the calories—a “sweetener-plus” halo. For example, coconut palm sugar is loaded with vitamins and minerals, and it comes with a relatively low glycemic index. Honey comes loaded with amino acids, minerals and pollen; maple syrup with minerals, vitamins and polyphenolic antioxidants; black strap molasses is high in vitamins B6 and K; while malt syrup extract’s antioxidants come with “impressively high ORAC value (a measure of antioxidant activity).”

According to data provided by one supplier, the majority of consumers perceive sucrose, “raw sugar,” molasses and monk fruit as “all natural.” According to 2014 Mintel data, honey, coconut palm sugar and agave lead the pack, while saccharine, aspartame and high-fructose corn syrup trail, in terms of consumer “health halos,” she said.

Goulson divided natural sweeteners into four categories:
1. Sugar syrups (e.g., honey, agave, tapioca syrup, yacon syrup)
2. Less-refined sugars (e.g., coconut palm sugar, turbinado, demerara,
rapidura, jaggery, sucanat)
3. Zero-calorie/high-potency (stevia leaf and monk fruit extracts)
4. Low-/No-calorie sugar alcohols (erythritol, xylitol)

Yacon syrups are derived from an Andean root that has been promoted for alleged weight-loss and other nutraceutical benefits. Jaggery is a pressed cake made of date palm, coconut palm, or sugar cane sugar crystals and molasses: It is popular in Southern Asia and Africa. Muscovado sugar is a sticky mixture of sugar cane sugar and molasses. Rapidura, turbinado and demerara are first-press cane sugars with varying levels of residual molasses.

Sugars and sugar syrups vary significantly in their sucrose, fructose, glucose, maltose and maltotriose composition, which will affect their functionality.

The two natural, zero-calorie, high-potency sweeteners approved in the U.S. are stevia and monk fruit extracts. Steviol glycosides are 200-250 times sweeter than sucrose, while monk fruit (melon) juice is about 20 times sweeter than other fruit juices; its active components, mogrosides, are about 200 times as sweet as sucrose. However, these ingredients typically need to be paired with bulking agents, which may involve additional considerations, (e.g., naturally sweetened or all-natural; low- vs. no-calorie; functionality, taste, ingredient labeling and cost).

In summation, concluded Goulson: “The clean label movement is reaching deep into the sweetener space, and there exist many consumer-friendly ingredient choices. Expect consumers to carefully examine the new nutritional labels as they relate to sugar and to actively seek natural sweeteners packaged with bonus nutrients.”

“Selecting Natural Sweeteners: Products, Properties and Performance,” Melanie Goulson, MSc, General Manager & Principal Scientist, Merlin Development and Adjunct Professor, St. Catherine University, 

This presentation was given at the 2017 Clean Label Conference. To download presentations from this event, go to

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