Natural sweeteners are those which are present, obtained or produced from nature, with or without any inclusion of chemicals or any complicated machinery. Natural sweeteners may also be a potent source of several vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and enzymes.
Sweetener such as sugar has been commonly used for centuries as it contributes to texture, taste and for its function in food preservation. However, consumption of excessive sugar may have many detrimental effects on the body of the individual and accounts for increased energy intake leading to chronic diseases such as obesity, weight gain, high cholesterol, increased blood pressure and dental issues. Even though sweeteners accomplish many functions in food, they are non-nutritive and proved to be carcinogenic. They also possess negative side effects such as mood disorders, migraines etc., it must be avoided.
A worldwide increase in demand for sugar substitutes such as ‘low-calorie’ sweeteners has been observed, which can help to reduce calorie intake in individuals suffering from chronic disease such as diabetes, weight gain etc. Sweeteners being like sugar can be included in the diet of individuals having diabetes. They are low in glycaemic index and help in maintaining normal proportion of sugar. Natural sweeteners are in great demand principally because it is safe due to its non-sacchariferous sweetening agents, protein sweeteners and polyol sweeteners.
Commonly used natural sweeteners which can replace sugar include:
- Honey: Indian bee or Apis indica, Apis mellifera, Apis dorsata (Rock Bee) and other species of Apis of family Apidae, deposits sugar secretion as honey in honeycombs. Honey has been traditionally used as a sweetening agent and preservative in food. Honey is beneficial to promote the growth of healthy gut microflora because of its anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Honey is the common ingredient used in beverages such as teas, soft drinks and candies or used in baking as a sugar substitute.
- Stevia: Stevia is considered as one of the safest natural sweeteners and can be used as sugar substitute in various food compositions. From the leaves of small perennial herb Stevia Rebaudiana, stevia is obtained. Stevia is prominently found in Paraguay and south brazil. Stevial glycosides are the main sweet component of the plant and as compared with sugar are 100-200 times sweeter. stevia is considered as zero-calorie natural sweetener with less impact on blood sugar levels with low glycaemic index. Stevia can be used in various food applications like liquid stevia as sweetener in beverages and powdered stevia in baking.
- Dates: The most common types of dates used as natural sweetener are medjool dates. Similar to caramel, medjool dates when used as sweetener contributes to complex flavor. Substantial amount of nutrients such as magnesium, copper, calcium, and vitamin B content is found in medjool dates. Due to high fiber content of medjool dates, it has lower effects on blood glucose levels. Date syrups or paste can be used as sugar substitute in various food formulations.
- Brown rice syrup: Recently gluten free brown rice syrup is gaining popularity as a natural sweetener. With the help of enzymes when brown rice is fermented it results in a thick, amber-coloured, sweet syrup. This sweet syrup can be a perfect corn syrup replacement in bakery products. Sweet brown rice syrup can also be used as sweetener to make granola bars, sweeten nuts, pies etc.
- Maple syrup: Maple syrup is potent with manganese, calcium, potassium, and zinc. Also rich in antioxidants, which helps to reduce free radicle and prevent oxidative damage. Maple syrup is obtained from maple tree which is native to North America; the sap is collected by tapping the trunk of tree and is reduced until it forms thick syrup. Maple syrup is commonly produced in two grades i.e., A or B. earlier in the season the lighter colour grade A is produced while dark colour grade B with bolder flavor and more beneficial antioxidants is produced later in the season. Due to heat stable property of maple syrup, it can be added in glazes (glazed cookie or cakes), sauce or marinades.
- Xylitol: Xylitol belongs to the category of polyol sweeteners, commonly found in fruits and vegetables. Application of xylitol helps to improve colour and flavor in food preparations. Xylitol also possesses distinct advantage when used as ingredient that it does not undergo Maillard reaction and has been shown to improve bone density and lower the risk of osteoporosis.
- Coconut Sugar: Coconut sugar has similar consistency as white sugar and flavor like brown sugar with much lower glycaemic index. Coconut sugar is obtained from the flower bud of coconut by extracting sap from it, evaporating the water and granules are obtained by grinding solid saps. Coconut sugar is rich in antioxidants, iron, potassium, and calcium. Coconut sugar can be used in similar way as the white sugar.