No matter the season, sugar is an excellent component of many morning and evening cups of tea or coffee as well as a lovely staple of our festivities and daily lives. Cooks as well as consumers are becoming more interested in utilizing sugar replacements in their recipes, as more knowledge regarding the harmful effects of high fructose corn syrup and cane sugar on human health and the environment becomes available. Many sweeteners have penetrated the market as a result of corporations recognizing this, including naturally derived sweeteners.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations claims that it is nearly impossible to identify “the most sustainable sweetener” because global variations in soils, plants, farming practices and weather make it difficult to compare even the same kind of sweetener.
Switching to a naturally derived sweetener, however, might be healthier, according to Future Market Insights (FMI). The question is: Are they more eco-friendly and sustainable?
Consumers are moving towards stevia as an eco-friendly alternative
Stevia-based sweeteners are a sweeter, more ecologically friendly substitute to sugar, according to scientific research. Natural sweeteners made from stevia may only emit 10% of the total greenhouse gases that sugar does while maintaining the same sweetness, according to a new study from the University of Surrey.
A life cycle assessment study of the steviol glycosides isolated from stevia by researchers revealed that, compared to sugar, the manufacture of this stevia sweetener had a lower overall environmental effect. For instance, it provides a chance to utilize less water or land while yet providing a degree of sweetness comparable to sugar.
Research also shows various non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS), like steviol glycosides, can mimic the taste of sugar while avoiding the health problems that come with it, such as obesity, tooth decay and diabetes. They are far sweeter than sugar, which enables them to achieve this—approximately 250 to 300 times sweeter—research showed. A 4-gram serving, for example, is equivalent to 1,000 grams of sugar, in terms of sweetness.
Steviol glycosides and other natural compounds may be beneficial for the planet's health. However, the study openly emphasizes the need for further research to fully understand the impact of steviol glycosides and various other NNS on human health when incorporated into a wider diet.
Honey: The net positive naturally derived sweetener
Honey, which is sweeter than sugar, is one of the oldest natural sweeteners. It’s also the only sweetener obtained from an animal source, according to the aforementioned study. Raising bees can inspire individuals to farm more sustainably, and bees can supply the crucial ecosystem function of pollination, in addition to producing honey without any additional processing. Importantly, pollination plays a significant role in crop production, contributing to almost one-third (30%) of the total human dietary supply, studies show.
Commercial honey has a few additional complications. To fertilize crops, beekeepers routinely carry their hives across great distances. Significant financial and environmental advantages result from this practice, however, it is the main source of carbon emissions from honey production. For every kilogram of processed honey produced in the United States, approximately 1.4 kg of lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are produced, according to University of California, Davis’ Carbon Footprint of U.S. Honey Production and Packing report. Unexpectedly, the research also shows the largest honey producers have the lowest volume of GHG emissions.
According to international research conducted in Italy, an estimated 1.44 kg of lifecycle GHG emissions were shown, mainly due to transportation of the beehives (Animals Basel. 2023;13:766).
There is not much processing done to pure honey. Unlike dairy products, some honey is pasteurized, although heat is not necessary for food safety. Raw honey can be easier to make and healthier. The next greenest choice after beekeeping is to purchase local (or domestic) raw honey, especially in light of adulterated imported honey.
Date sugar to help in carbon sequestering
If you want a natural sweetener that has undergone little processing, date sugar, which is made from dehydrated dates that have been ground into granules, is a good option. Although date sugar doesn't technically qualify as a sugar substitute and won't melt when cooked, it does have a natural flavor that is somewhat akin to caramel and is reasonably high in potassium and fiber. Additionally, it has a lower glycemic index than conventional sugars, which makes it an ideal choice for people who are keeping an eye on their glucose levels.
Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia are the global leaders in date production, according to global data, but the U.S. also produces dates, with California producing 90% of the nation’s total, per national data. Even though date palms can resist long periods of drought in hot weather, they require constant watering for germination and growth, high yield, but also high-quality fruit in large-scale production. Many areas still use flood irrigation, particularly on older farmlands. But dates still need a great deal of water, even in regions where farmers are using drip irrigation, which is more suitable for the desert. A dense concentration of orchards can put a strain on local groundwater supplies, particularly in areas within which groundwater already exists in short supply, such as California's Coachella Valley. Despite its high-water use, many farmers use sustainable agriculture practices such as natural fertilizers, cover crops, as well as intercropping—even in industrialized production, as rising temperatures and other climate issues force farmers to use adaptive techniques.
Date palm groves also play a crucial part in the natural system of the desert and offer essential habitats for nearby species. Additionally, date palms can assist sequester carbon and have proven effective in the Arabian Peninsula, particularly within the United Arab Emirates, in halting desertification.
Even though the Middle East and Africa produce more dates than the U.S., U.S. firms like Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods and Date Lady have partnered with local farms to create date sugar. They make the naturally derived sweeteners environmentally sustainable by making sure that no hazardous pesticides or other chemicals are used in the production process.
The environmental effects of these naturally derived sweeteners have been less severe than those of processed sugar, which is typically added to most commercial foods. From the standpoint of carbon footprint, certain forms of maple syrup and honey may be better alternatives than stevia or agave. However, based on the facts at hand, each of them appears to be a more environmentally friendly option than high fructose corn syrup or cane sugar. They might even be advantageous for the environment.
Nandini Roy Choudhury has more than seven years of management consulting experience. As lead for FMI’s food and beverages practice, she has vast functional expertise within food ingredients, health and nutrition solutions, animal nutrition and marine nutrients. She is also well-versed in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, retail and chemical sectors.