Low-Carb sugar substitutes have produced a lot of controversy.
Some of the beliefs floating around the ketogenic community are justified, and some of them are just myths.
Some of the advice you hear is based on anecdotal experience, while other recommendations are based on scientific evidence.
A lot of the more popular comments about sugar substitutes are a simple rehash of what others believe.
And quite often, theory and personal opinion is presented as fact.
However, the truth about low-carb sweeteners and sugar substitutes for keto diets isn’t always easy to uncover because insulin responses and blood glucose stability are quite individual in nature.
While it’s universally accepted that table sugar raises your basal insulin level, when used consistently, and eating sugar can make your blood glucose level unstable, in sensitive individuals, the same thing can happen when you use a sugar alternative or even a natural sweetener.
There really is a group of people who experience higher insulin levels and unstable blood glucose after consuming low-carb sweeteners, due to the way their body reacts to the taste of these sugar alternatives.
This may, or may not, apply to you.
A glycemic listing can help determine which alternatives are best if you have pre-diabetes or diabetes, but what if you don’t?
If you don’t have pre-diabetes or diabetes, the glycemic index isn’t the only thing you should look at when determining which sweetener is right for you.
Importance of Sugar Substitute for Keto Diet
Some individuals find that consuming sugar alternatives keeps their cravings for sweet things alive.
These people tend to assume that avoiding sugar alternatives is the right choice for everyone.
However, that stance isn’t always practical.
While it’s true that the little packages of sugar substitute and many of the bulk sweeteners are filled with maltodextrin, which can keep you craving carby treats, the whole idea behind moving to a low-carb diet is to adopt a healthier lifestyle.
If you’ve been on a processed foods diet for most of your life, this new way of living is going to take time to adapt to.
Keto diets are very low in carbs, when compared to a standard low-carb diet of 60 to 120 carbs, so expecting you to go from eating 300 carbs a day down to a minimum of 20-net carbs with absolutely no sweet treats — ever — isn’t realistic.
Low-carb sweeteners can help you transition from a standard American diet to one that is very low in carbs by allowing you to indulge in a sweet treat now and then.
Feeling deprived is the kiss of death on a low-carb diet, so using a sugar substitute in your favorite dessert recipe can help you stay on plan.
Sugar substitutes for the keto diet also enable you to continue to enjoy your morning coffee, tea, or hot chocolate without having to feel guilty for caving in and using real sugar or honey because that just won’t happen if you give yourself permission to use what’s available today.
These modern substitutes also allow you to continue to feel included and normal.
And while some people might label these alternatives as using a crutch, or trying to imitate the standard American diet that got you fat in the first place, there is nothing wrong with turning to a sugar substitute to help you stay on plan and avoid the side effects from using sugar, honey, agave syrup, or some other natural sweetener that contributed to your overweight or obesity.
There is nothing wrong with using sugar alternatives sparingly and wisely.
All Sweeteners are Processed and Highly Refined.
A couple of decades ago, low-carb sugar substitutes were quite rare.
In fact, before 1999, there was only a couple of alternatives to choose from. Saccharin, with it’s strong bitter aftertaste, and aspartame were the two main sweeteners available to the general public.
Today, there are dozens of alternatives to sugar, with saccharin and aspartame being only two choices that you can make.
All sugar substitutes come with concerns and risks because the greater majority of them are manufactured in a way that leaves them highly processed and refined.
This includes the more popular, so-called natural sweeteners like stevia extract.
“Natural” is a word that is not regulated by the Federal Department of Agriculture (FDA), so manufacturers will use that term on the label to describe their product, even ones that are heavily processed and highly refined.
All artificial sweeteners are synthetic.
They often start out as a natural substance, however, but by the time the sweetener is extracted or chemically altered to become such, the result is a new product, such as sucralose, which starts out as real table sugar.
Not all substitutes can be used in cooking.
Some have an offensive aftertaste. Blends can often be better in covering up the negative properties of some sugar alternatives, while spiking the sugar-like properties through a synergistic effect.
Synergistic means that the result of blending 2 to 3 sweeteners together will make the end product sweeter than if you used just one of the sweeteners by themselves.
Sugar Substitutes and Keto Diet
Beware of bulk sweeteners, including the ones that come in little packets.
They are not carb free.
This is because the maltodextrin used as a filler contains a lot of carbs.
Most of the bulk varieties are 24-net carbs per cup.
The packets are 1 carb each, which doesn’t sound like much, but since they have the sweetening capacity of 2 teaspoons of sugar, it takes 24 packets to equal one cup of sugar.
That still comes to 24 carbs per cup.
For this reason, the liquid varieties are best, but not all sweeteners are available as a liquid.
In addition to the ones that use maltodextrin, bulk sweeteners and even a lot of blends are beginning to use erythritol as the filler instead.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol, so it does contain carbs, but these carbs are absorbed into the bloodstream through the upper small intestines.
Once absorbed, the body doesn’t know what to do with it, so it shuttles it off to be eliminated in the urine.
For this reason, most people see no rise in blood sugar after consuming erythritol.
This makes erythritol-based sweeteners quite popular among keto dieters, as well as the liquid forms of other sweeteners.
Best Sugar Substitutes For Keto Diet
There are many keto-friendly sugar substitutes and sweeteners available on the market today. The difference between low-carb substitutes and ketogenic substitutes is a matter of carbs.
When you’re only consuming 20-net carbs a day, or less, there is less room in your diet for bulky sweeteners and natural sweeteners that contain a lot of carbs.
The following list of keto-friendly sugar substitutes contain little to no carbs:
First discovered in 1879, saccharin is the oldest of all the sugar substitutes available today.
It’s original brand name was Sweet ‘N Low and 200 to 700 times as sweet as sugar.
In 1981, a scientific study done with rats used an extremely high dosage of saccharin, which results in the rats coming down with bladder cancer.
Since there was no other sugar alternative at the time, the product carried a warning label.
Today, the warning label has been removed because saccharin does not result in bladder cancer in humans.
Saccharin doesn’t lose its sweetness when cooked, but this sweetener has a very strong aftertaste, so is rarely seen in keto recipes today.
First approved by the FDA in 1988, common brands of Acesulfame potassium are Sunett and Sweet One.
Sometimes called Ace-K, it is 200 times sweeter than sugar.
This sweetener comes with zero calories, so it has no carbs.
It is found in a variety of processed foods like soft drinks, diet gelatin, and frozen desserts, as well as toothpaste and mouthwash.
Unlike some sweeteners, it doesn’t lose its ability to retain sweetness when cooked.
However, this alternative comes with a strong aftertaste, so it is commonly used in blends, rather than just by itself.
This keto-friendly sweetener was approved by the FDA in 1981. Common brand names are NutraSweet and Equal.
It can be found in a variety of products, including most diet sodas, cough drops, medicines, and even yogurt.
Made from a combination of two amino acids — aspartic acid and phenylalanine — it is 200 times sweeter than sugar.
Aspartame comes with more controversy than any other sweetener, due to anecdotal stories about its side effects.
Many within the low-carb community have reported:
- severe headaches
- increase in appetite
- stalled weight loss
People with phenylketonuria should avoid aspartame completely, due to an inability to process the amino acid phenylalanine.
Aspartame cannot be used in cooking because it loses its sweetness when heated.
This sweetener is not allowed on the Atkins Diet, due to the research that Dr. Atkins was privy to, before 2002, but there is no restriction on any of the other ketogenic diets regarding aspartame.
Neotame is manufactured by the same manufacturer that produces aspartame and was approved by the FDA in 2002.
Currently, it is only found in processed foods because it is 7,000 to 13,000 times sweeter than sugar, too sweet to be useful at home.
Approved by the FDA in 1998, as a replacement for saccharin, its original brand name was Splenda.
It is 600 times as sweet as sugar and was a major breakthrough in taste when it first hit the market. This product tastes very much like real sugar.
It can be found in a variety of products, including sugar-free pie fillings, sugar-free canned fruits, syrups, and microwave kettle corn.
Stevia Leaf Extract
Stevia is one of the more popular keto-friendly substitutes, due to it being marketed as a natural sweetener.
However, as mentioned above, this is a highly refined extract called rebiana, sometimes known as Reb A.
Common brands include Stevia in the Raw, Sweet Leaf, Truvia, and Pure Via.
The FDA has approved highly refined Stevia preparations as a “novel” sweetener, but not the whole leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts that have not been refined.
The stevia plant is known as stevia rebaudiana, a plant from South America. Only certain parts of the plant are sweet.
When the extract is pulled from the leaves, it’s known as stevia glycosides, which is 200 to 400 times as sweet as sugar.
The extract doesn’t lose its sweetness when heated, so it’s often added to other sweeteners and fillers to boost the natural sweetness of the alternative blend.
Stevia can be purchase as packets, drops, or in whole plant form. Packets are often coupled with erythritol, instead of maltodextrin, for a more natural product, such as Truvia.
Despite its aftertaste, Stevia is a favorite of Cleveland Clinic dietitians who all “agree that the best sweetener is no sweetener at all,” so even Stevia needs to be used sparingly and with care.
Monk Fruit Extract
This extract is also known as Lo Han Guo and comes from a small green melon found in southern China. Common brands include Nectresse, Pure Lo, and Monk Fruit in the Raw.
At 150 to 250 times as sweet as sugar, it’s used in a variety of sweeteners, but can also be purchased in liquid form by itself. This product contains zero calories and zero carbs.
Monk Fruit Extract has no known side effects. Benefits include its anti-inflammatory properties, as well as being able to provide sore throat relief and reduce phlegm.
It has a strong aftertaste, which some people find highly offensive.
Allulose is a rare form of sugar because it is only found in a small handful of foods, such as:
- pure maple syrup
It is a monosaccharide like glucose and fructose are, so it is a simple sugar, but its structure is arranged differently than fructose is.
About 70 to 84 percent is absorbed into the bloodstream after consumption and is eliminated in the urine, like erythritol is, but this is not erythritol.
It is not even a sugar alcohol.
Unlike sugar alcohol, what isn’t digested is not fermented in the colon, so it comes with no side effects at all!
You won’t experience gas, bloating, or diarrhea like many people do from sugar alcohols.
Allulose begins as the fructose in corn and other plants, and then converted into allulose through enzymatic action.
Some scientific studies have observed that it tends to lower blood glucose levels and improves insulin sensitivity, but it also refills liver glycogen, so it needs to be used carefully.
The difference between allulose and fructose is that the conversion into allulose prevents it from raising insulin like fructose does.
It also isn’t stored as fat in the liver at all. Nor does it raise your triglycerides.
The glycogen is easily used to keep blood glucose steady and supply the brain with part of the 120 carbs a day that the brain needs to survive, provided you don’t overuse this sweetener.
As sold, it is often mixed with other sweeteners, such as monk fruit and stevia extract.
The only drawback to allulose is that the rareness makes it quite expensive.
Best Sugar Alcohols for Keto Diet
There are a few sugar alcohols that are also keto-friendly, depending on their glycemic index.
The glycemic index is a measurement of how likely a substance or food is to raise your blood glucose after eating 50 grams of a food’s weight or substance.
The following sugar alcohols are the best low-carb sugar alcohols for your keto diet:
- Erythritol: Glycemic Index – 1
- Isomalt: Glycemic Index – 2
- Sorbitol: Glycemic Index – 4
- Xylitol: Glycemic Index – 12
All keto-friendly sugar alcohols need to be used with extreme care, due to their ability to cause gastrointestinal distress, as well as fermentation in the colon.
While erythritol is the least likely to cause problems, due to the way it’s processed and eliminated in the urine, if you have health conditions that interfere with small intestinal absorption, you can suffer from the same ill effects as other sugar alcohols.
All of these sugar alcohols contain about 10 calories per teaspoon, which equates to 2-1/2 carbs.
In comparison, sugar has 4 carbs per teaspoon, so sugar alcohols contain much less energy potential, due to the way they are processed.
Typically, they are not absorbed very well, which means that even the few calories and carbs they do contain still won’t be used by the body.
However, the better you can absorb them, the more energy potential they have.
This is why sugar alcohols can cause your weight loss to stall.
You might be absorbing more calories and carbs than you think.
The only exception to this is erythritol. The better erythritol is absorbed, the less likely you are to experience gastrointestinal issues.
In addition, sugar alcohols do not cause tooth decay like sugar does, so they are a better choice for oral health.
They are also a better choice when it comes to baked goods. Since sugar is often used as a bulking agent and for moisture retention in baking, using one of the above low-carb sweeteners can leave your baked goods dry and flat.
Sugar alcohols react just like sugar when it comes to cooking and baking. They add bulk and moisture, just like sugar does.
They will also caramelize, helping your baked goods to brown well, and give you that sticky mouth feel that you won’t get with a standard sugar substitute.
In general, sugar alcohols also do not come with an aftertaste unless you use too much.
Available in granulated and powdered forms, sugar alcohols are much more versatile than traditional artificial sweeteners are.
Sugar Free Doesn’t Mean Keto-Friendly
When a product says sugar free, make sure that you read the label very carefully. “Sugar free” on the label only means that the product or ingredient doesn’t contain any sucrose, or table sugar — no white sugar, brown sugar, or powdered sugar.
It doesn’t mean the product contains a sugar substitute or sugar alcohol and is, therefore, low in calories and carbs.
It can, but doesn’t have to. In fact, sugar-free products can still contain natural sweeteners, such as:
- agave nectar
- brown-rice syrup
- date sugar
- fruit juice concentrate
- glucose syrup
- high-fructose corn syrup
- invert sugar
- lactose in dairy products
- light or dark corn syrup
- pure maple syrup
- raw sugar
- turbinado sugar
These simple sweeteners are quite plentiful in processed foods and are still sugar, despite their different names.
The body uses sugar for calories only, so all of these sweeteners will supply the body with plenty of calories and carbs, but not much nutrition, if any.
These sweeteners are processed just like table sugar, so they come with the same side effects as table sugar.
If eaten in excess to what your glycogen stores can hold, they will contribute to body fat, excess triglycerides in the bloodstream, and raise your basal insulin levels.
This makes it more difficult to lose weight and increase your risk of heart disease.
They will aggravate insulin resistance, and can worsen pre-diabetes and diabetes because when the body doesn’t recognize the insulin that you are producing, your blood glucose will go too high.
High blood sugar strengthens insulin resistance, making it more difficult to lose weight.
It is also added sugars, like the ones listed above, that affect your cholesterol profile. Saturated fats do not cause heart disease.
It’s the sweeteners that you use in your food. Sugars don’t just affect your weight. They impact your heart and blood fat level, as well.
Typically, if you consume a lot of sweeteners, you will have problems with elevated triglycerides, elevated LDL cholesterol, and your HDL cholesterol (the good kind that shuttles LDL to the liver for processing) will be too low.
This puts you at risk for coronary artery disease.
Foods with a lot of added sugars also don’t fill you up like whole foods do. It’s very easy to overeat carby foods because they aren’t as satisfying as meat and vegetables.
This is especially true for high-fructose corn syrup sweetened soft drinks because liquids don’t tell your brain that you’ve had something to eat. Plus, liquids don’t contain fiber, vitamins, or minerals, making them basically a non-food.
They supply calories, carbohydrates, and little else.
It is definitely not a good idea to consume carby sweets when you eat off plan. It’s much better to stick to your ketogenic diet and use a sugar alternative instead.
The availability of keto-friendly sugar substitutes and sweeteners is not an excuse to recreate the standard American diet that you grew up on.
However, low-carb sweeteners and sugar substitutes can be a useful tool when you’re feeling deprived or just need a sweet treat to help you stay on plan.