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The lowdown on natural sweeteners

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Sweeteners are derived from natural substances rather than synthesized

They haven't been studied as extensively as sugar and artificial substitutes

FDA considers most of them to be generally recognized as safe

SELF —  

With regular sugar taking a nutritional beating and artificial sweeteners unable to shake their sketchy made-in-the-lab connotations, it’s no wonder newcomers like stevia and agave are conquering our morning coffee (and the world of packaged foods).

The new low-cal sweeteners are derived from natural substances rather than synthesized like saccharin and aspartame, so choosing them can make you feel at least somewhat healthy and virtuous. Still, there are concerns.

Are they safe?

Some of these natural sweeteners are relatively new, so they haven’t been studied as extensively as sugar and artificial substitutes have.

And though you would expect natural to mean that a product contains nothing artificial, some new sweeteners may have undergone chemical processing to extract them from their original sources, says Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the school of public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The processing involved may affect their healthfulness, though we can’t be sure since manufacturers provide few details. However, the FDA has reviewed provided data and considers most of them to be generally recognized as safe.

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In fact, the food-safety watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest believes this new generation is probably safer than aspartame and saccharin, which it asserts could increase cancer risk. (The FDA and the American Cancer Society dismiss the talk of cancer, because it’s based on older animal studies involving very large amounts of artificial sweeteners.)

There is one new sweetener CSPI has put in its “caution” category: the monk-fruit extract found in products such as Nectresse, which CSPI says has been poorly tested for safety.

“But since it’s derived from a fruit, it is probably safe,” says Michael Jacobson, CSPI’s executive director.

And slimming?

With the exception of agave syrup, the new naturals are very low-calorie or calorie-free, so you would think they’d be a great way to help decrease your daily calorie intake. But it’s complicated – mostly because there’s no research that specifically looks at how these sweeteners affect weight loss.

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Existing studies on dieting focus on the older generation of artificial additives. And on that front the evidence is mixed.

“Our research shows that artificial sweeteners do appear to reduce the risk for weight gain when combined with a healthy, well-balanced diet,” Popkin says.