Q: "I've heard a lot about an 'all natural' sweetener. How is that different than aspartame?"
A: If you think there are more 'natural' products including 'all natural' sweeteners on grocery store shelves these days, you're correct. For consumers looking for natural sweetener options, there are more choices now than ever from which to choose. The term 'natural' is one of the most popular on food packaging, and a bewildering array of sweeteners claims to be 'natural' to meet buyer demand. It's a label many manufacturers want on their products due to consumer perception that natural ingredients are supposed to be safer and healthier, better than competing products, and perhaps even more ecologically sensitive.
New sweetener products with the popular 'natural' claim have been hitting the marketplace fast and furiously over the past few years. Xylitol, maltitol, honey, molasses, fructose, agave, rice and sorghum syrup are caloric sweeteners that have found a niche, marketed as being 'natural'. Erythritol, a 'natural' sugar alcohol like xylitol and maltitol, but non-caloric, has been in the market for the past 5 years. Most recently the non-caloric extract rebiana from stevia and sold under a variety of brand names, has reached the store shelves with the claim of being 'all natural.'
Stevia, which is approximately 100 times sweeter than sugar, is derived from a shrub grown in South American and Southeast Asia. The chemicals providing the sweet taste are stevioside and rebaudioside, commonly called rebiana. A purification process of stevia produces a 95 % pure rebiana extract which is about 200 times as sweet as sugar. The processing companies petitioned FDA that rebiana should be considered 'generally recognized as safe,' or GRAS. Less scrutiny is given by the FDA to GRAS substances than standard food additives. In late 2008 the FDA agreed that the chemical could be considered GRAS. Stevia derived sweeteners are commonly promoted as 'natural.'
But what does 'natural' really mean, and does it have any regulatory or standard definition?
One way to define 'natural' is as any product that would occur on its own without human involvement. By this definition, stevioside is not 'all natural' since it requires a certain amount of human intervention to extract and purify it from the stevia shrub. But this definition also would exclude virtually any refined product, including sugar.
Other considerations include whether the components of the ingredient exist in nature. Aspartame is an example of a sweetener that breaks down to common elements in foods, but it doesn't inherently exist in nature as the sweetener itself. Two amino acids and methanol - all three of which can be found in your backyard garden - are combined to form aspartame. Interestingly, aspartame is the only low calorie sweetener that is digested by the body in the same way as other foods and beverages.
Aspartame however, is commonly known as an 'artificial' sweetener. The term "artificial" refers to something produced to imitate nature. In this case, aspartame is a product that replicates the taste of sweetness, or sugar, and does not inherently exist in nature without intervention of humans. Because it is a food additive, it is highly scrutinized for by the FDA for safety. A large body of scientific research and detailed reviews of toxicological and clinical studies show that that aspartame is safe for consumption.
According to a U.S. Food and Drug Administration policy released in 1993: "FDA has not established a formal definition for the term 'natural', however the agency has not objected to the use of the term on food labels provided it is used in a manner that is truthful and not misleading and the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances."
The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) defines "natural" as "a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural."
There is no clear definition or accepted standard for the term 'natural,' from science. This unregulated term has not been defined by the FDA as to when and how 'natural' should be used. And the word 'natural' has no precise legal definition.
Consumers though, have a misperception that 'natural' inherently means 'healthy' and 'good for you.' In actuality, people should approach the term 'natural' with a healthy dose of skepticism. Many 'natural' herbal products must be extensively processed before human use and thereby do not fit the requirement to be 'minimally processed.' In a zeal to reach buyers, 'natural' has been applied (often misleadingly) to potato chips, candy bars and soda pop - foods that do not fit the accepted definition of healthy. Salt, saturated fat and arsenic are 'natural' products, 'naturally' found in our food supply, yet all should be considered with some degree of caution - from simple moderation to sheer avoidance.
The bottom line: Rather than be concerned about a product as natural or artificial, you should take a hard look at its safety record and whether it's been thoroughly tested. Numerous studies and scientific evidence consistently confirm that all of the sweeteners approved for use in the United States are safe for consumption.
A 'natural' claim on a package is not well defined, standardized or regulated, and is not always better.
Mary Lee Chin is a registered dietitian and provides expert counsel to the Aspartame Resource Center.