Exploring low carb sweetener options involved a fair amount of research, as well as lots of trial-and-error. It seems like it should have been simpler, but the more I learn about the latest research on nutrition, the more complex it seems. The conventional widsdom of nutrition that I had been taught turned out to be upside-down, especially for people like Deb and me who are carbohydrate intolerant.
This is a straight-forward synopsis of the information that we have found useful in choosing the low carb sweeteners that work best for us. I hope it will be helpful to you in narrowing down the field, or at least finding a place to start.
In my post last week, The Great Sugar Debate, I pointed out that both natural and processed sugars raise insulin and blood glucose markedly. In general, these sugars are of little or no use to those of us who have abnormal glycemic responses to most carbohydrates. However, I know of a number of people who take an 80/20 approach with regard to sugar and it seems to work well enough for them.
Unfortunately, an 80/20 approach in using sugar hasn’t been useful for me. I find that about 2 hours after consuming more than a trace amount of sugar, I start to feel hungry and crave carby foods. It’s an indication that my blood glucose has risen and then dropped. It’s the sudden drop in blood sugar that causes my body to want to eat more foods that will raise my blood glucose. That’s a problem for me for two reasons.
- First, it is healther for me to maintain my blood glucose as level as possible, with minimal spikes and dips. The cravings signal that my blood glucose is on a bit of a roller coaster.
- Second, experiencing cravings and hunger, especially when I have no reason to be hungry, are just darned unpleasant. I’m left with either choosing to give in to temptation or to “white knuckle” my way through in order to stay on my eating plan. It can take a day or two before I feel back to normal. The fleeting “indulgence” just doesn’t feel worth the discomfort to me.
That leaves me with two options. Either give up sweet tasting foods entirely (fruit included, for the most part), or find an alternative that can help me avoid feeling deprived while still keeping my insulin and blood glucose off the roller coaster. Cue the low carb sweeteners.
There are basically two forms of low carb sweeteners — natural (derived from fruits, vegetables, and plant fibers) or artificial (sometimes derived from natural ingredients, but highly processed), also known as “synthetic” or “man-made.” These are the low glycemic options available to those of us who are following a low carb/ketogenic way of eating.
Artificial sweeteners have been the subject of intense study and debate. There are some who feel that they are harmless, based in part on the USDA’s designation of them as ‘generally recognized as safe,’ and others who are concerned that they may be carcinogenic, neurotoxic, or otherwise unsafe. The jury is still out, so we are left to make our own best guesses.
Deb and I have found some natural low carbs sweeteners that suit us. Although they are refined, like just about every other ‘added’ sugar and sweetener on the market, our overall impression is that they are less risky than the artifical ones. In the end, everything is risky, isn’t it? It comes down to a matter of degree and what we are comfortable with. Because we choose to avoid artifical sweeteners, I’m going to focus primarily on the natural low carb sweeteners and will share which are our favorites and how we use them.
There are a number of different sugar alcohols, also known as polyols. Sugar alcohols, the popular term, is actually a misnomer. While they may taste sweet, they don’t contain sugar — and they aren’t alcohol because they don’t contain ethanol.
- The primary advantage of sugar alcohols is their reduced glycemic response compared with regular sugars. Our bodies are unable to digest them completely, so the metabolic effect of their carbohydrates are neutralized to varying degrees.
- While most are not calorie-free like artifical sweeteners, they have fewer calories than sugar.
- Most of them aren’t as sweet as sugar or artificial sweeteners.
- Because sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed, they ferment in the intestines. In sensitive individuals, they can cause varying degrees of bloating, gas, cramping, or even diarrhea, within several hours of ingestion. Certain sugar alcohols are known for minor, if any, side effects; others are common culprits. People have individualized responses, so careful experimentation is recommended. Dose has a big influence, and tolerance seems to build up over time for most people. It’s best to start small and increase gradually.
- The major considerations, besides taste, when choosing among the sugar alcohols are their individual glycemic impact, intenstinal side-effects, source, degree of processing, and cost.
- Only two sugar alcohols rate ‘above-the-bar’ for us — xylitol and erythritol — because of their minimal effects on blood glucose and intestinal discomfort. I’ll discuss the pros and cons of each below.
- Some of the sugar alcohols that we avoid include maltitol, sorbitol, lactitol, and mannitol. They have one or more of the following in common: they provide minimal improvement over sucrose in blood glucose response, they cause considerable intestinal discomfort for many people, or they are highly processed products derived from lower-quality sources. They are often found in processed convenience foods designed to be sugar-free, low carb, and diabetic-friendly because they are relatively inexpensive and taste reasonably similar to sugar.
On food labels in the US, sugar alcohols must be included in ‘total carbohydrates.’ If used in sugar-free foods, it must indicate on the label, on it’s own line, the carbohydrates just from sugar alcohols. It seems that most people don’t count the carbohydrates from xylitol, and particularly erythritol, since the glycemic effect is minimal and varies from person-to-person. We do not include the carbohydrates from xylitol and erythritol in the nutrition information in our recipes.
Xylitol is our favorite sweetener for cooking and baking because it tastes and behaves most like sugar to us. It occurs naturally in most plant materials, including many fruits and vegetables. The least processed xylitol granules comes from birch trees. Others are derived from corn or other plant sources that require more processing. We prefer birch-derived xylitol that is made in the US (vs China) even though it is a little more expensive.
In addition to it’s glycemic benefits when replacing sugar, xylitol has other advantageous effects.
- Dental hygiene — because xylitol is not converted in the mouth to acids that cause tooth decay. It also appears to reduce the level of decay-causing bacteria in saliva.
- As a medicine to prevent middle ear infections, especially in young children, and to help fight yeast infections from Candida albicans. This seems to be due to some of its unique anti-bacterial properties.
The glycemic index (how quickly foods raise blood glucose) of xylitol is 12, compared 65 for regular sugar, which makes it a great option for people with metabolic conditions such as diabetes, pre-diabetes, or obesity. It is important to note, however, that individuals have varying responses to the same food. Some people, like Deb and me, have minimal blood glucose reponses to xylitol. If you find that it triggers cravings or unusual hunger, you may want to test your blood glucose, and/or try a different sweetener.
Xylitol tends to cause very little of the gas and bloating associated with most other sugar alcohols. However, digestive reponses vary among individuals and dose levels. Some people seem to be particulary sensitive to sugar alcohols, so start with small amounts and increase gradually. Blending with other sweeteners can sometimes be an effective approach if you are dose-sensitive.
Xylitol has the same sweetness level as table sugar (although it has 40% fewer calories), so you can substitute it one-to-one in recipes calling for sugar. It can have a very mild “cooling effect” and aftertaste in larger quantities. We avoid this by reducing the amount of xylitol by about 25% and making up the sweetness difference by adding liquid stevia.
Do be aware that xylitol does not caramelize (brown), unlike sugar and erythritol, so baked products may not brown as much. (And it won’t work for creme brulee!)
One of the biggest downsides to xylitol is its toxicity to pets, particulary dogs. When eaten by non-primate species, it can lead to a rapid decrease in blood glucose and can be life threatening. You’ll definitely want to keep xylitol, and xylitol-containing foods, away from pets.
As I indicated above, not all sugar alcohols behave equally. In many ways, erythritol is perhaps an even better choice than xylitol.
- Because erythritol passes through the body largely undigested, it has a glycemic index of zero, the lowest of all of the sugar alcohols, as well as virtually no calories.
- It seems to cause the fewest digestive side-effects for most people, although some individuals are sensitive to it, and dose is a factor.
- One study indicates that it may have similar dental benefits to xylitol.
- It is not toxic to dogs, so it may be be a safer choice (or at least provide peace of mind) if you have dogs in your household.
Erythritol is about 70% as sweet as sugar (with virtually no calories), so you will need more (or an additional sweetener) to achieve the same sweetness level when substituting for sugar in recipes.
The biggest negative of erythritol for Deb and me is the pronounced cooling effect and aftertaste. It doesn’t seem to bother some people, but it’s simply unpleasant for us — very disappointing since it has so much else going for it. The cooling effect is exacerbated in recipes where the erythritol is not adequately dissolved in a liquid ingredient (like frostings and cheesecakes).
Additionally, without enough liquid ingredients, erythritol tends to recrystallize and have a sandy texture. Using a powdered form can help, but the grainy texture is still noticeable. The increased cooling effect and texture issues can also happen when the ratio of erythritol is too high relative to the other ingredients, or because it needs too much sweetening to compensate for a bitter ingredient, like chocolate. Using less erythritol and adding a different sweetener (such as stevia) can help. Because I don’t often use erythritol or it’s various branded blends, I have limited knowledge about how to work around its quirks.
Erythritol is available in pure form, but it is often blended with other sweeteners to offset the cooling effect/aftertaste. Swerve, a brand which contains erythritol blended with oligosaccharides (another natural low carb sweetener often used in manufacturing low carb foods), is popular and widely available. There are blends using various other natural low carb sweeteners. Deb and I haven’t tried them all but, as of yet, we haven’t found an erythritol blend that can take the place of xylitol.
Stevia is another natural low carb sweetener that we use. While we particularly like it for sweetening beverages, we also use it (frequently combined with xylitol and occasionally erythritol) in cooking and baking.
Stevia is a green, leafy plant native to South America. It looks similar to mint. Stevia has long been used as a sweetener, as well as for medicinal purposes. Some studies indicate that stevioside (one of stevia’s sweet compounds), has the potential to:
- lower blood pressure when it is unnaturally high; and
- improve function of the hormone insulin, helping to lower blood sugar levels.
The refined stevia sweeteners used today usually don’t resemble the whole stevia plant. In fact, in the US, whole-leaf stevia or crude stevia extracts aren’t FDA-approved. The FDA has deemed only highly purified stevia extracts as ‘generally recognized as safe.’
Stevia comes in two basic forms, powder and liquid. They can differ greatly from brand-to-brand, not just in taste, but in other added ingredients or “fillers.”
Stevia powder is available in it’s pure form and is highly concentrated. More often than not, however, powdered forms of stevia have fillers. The fillers are primarily to bulk them up (which can make them easier to use). Fillers can also help offset the bitter or metallic taste that stevia can have for some people. Some fillers are other natural low carb sweeteners, such as erythritol and inulin. However, other fillers are high glycemic food additives. Sometimes stevia, as well as xylitol and erythritol, are blended with real sugar to create ‘baking blends.’ Be sure to read the labels so you know what you’re getting.
It’s not uncommon to find maltodextrin and dextrose as fillers in stevia powders and other sweeteners, both natural and artificial. These are highly processed food additives, ususally derived from corn. They behave as sugar in the body, although they are not required to be labeled as sugar. Their very high glycemic index ranges from 85 up to 130 (table sugar is ‘only’ 65). Metabolically speaking, they are worse than sugar. Manufacturers embrace them because they are cheap and have multiple benefits in food processing:
- Sweetening, including savory foods such cured meats, canned foods, pretzels, and pickles
- Preventing crystallization
- Binding ingredients together
- Helping dough to rise and brown
- Stabilizing food colorings
- Acting as fillers or texturizing agents
- Extending the shelf-life of packaged foods
Maltodextrin and dextrose are two of the most commonly used ingredients in packaged foods. It was disturbing for me to realize the extent to which the foods we think are healthy actually contain ingredients that, in fact, sabotage our health. The best way to avoid these additives, and take back control of what goes into our bodies, is to severely limit consumption of packaged and processed foods. The key is to focus on eating more whole, unprocessed, nutrient-rich foods.
I was surprised to find that two of the most well known brands of stevia sweeteners, Truvia and Pure Via, barely contain any stevia at all. They have only tiny amounts of purified rebaudioside A, which is a highly processed, chemically modified compound which has not been linked to any health benefits. The filler in powdered Truvia is erythritol. However, the filler in powdered Pure Via is dextrose. I find it quite misleading for companies to market products that imply they are pure stevia when, in fact, they contain almost no stevia. In the case of Pure Via, they add a highly-processed food additive (dextrose) with a glycemic index of up to twice the amount of sugar. We don’t recommend either of these brands.
For a list of the stevia products and formulations that we recommend, as well as the other natural sweeteners that we use, see “Shopping Resources” below.
There are a few other sweeteners that we haven’t had much experience with, except in some cases as part of a blend with erythritol or stevia. These include yacon syrup, monk fruit (also known as luo han guo), tagatose, and oligosaccharides (soluble and fermentable fibers), including inulin and isomalto-oligosaccharide (IMO). As with every other sugar and sweetener, there are pros and cons to each. I plan to try more of them and share my experiences in a future post.
The Bottom Line
It’s not clear whether low carb sweeteners actually help with weight loss. Some studies indicate they may not be an advantage in weight loss. Other studies and anectodal evidence suggest that there may still be enough of an insulin response to trigger cravings and hunger, even though there may be little or no corresponding rise in blood glucose. This could inhibit weight loss. Frequent increases in insulin could also temporarily inhibit the body’s ability to burn fat and slow weight loss as well.
My approach has been to restrict the use of sweeteners except as part of a meal that contains fat and protein, rather than as a snack. Any glycemic response to the sweeteners we use will be tempered if eaten with such a meal. Reducing the frequency of eating by eliminating snacking is also helpful in minimizing insulin repsonses.
If you feel that you’re doing everything “right” in your eating plan and aren’t seeing the weight loss you should, or if you are experiencing cravings and hunger that seem related, think about making some tweaks. You might consider reducing the number and/or frequency of meals, trying a different sweetener, or even giving up all sweeteners for 2-3 weeks and see if anything changes for the better. Be sure to check labels for sources of hidden sweeteners as well.
None of the natural or artificial low carb sweeteners available at this time perfectly mimic sugar’s properties. They behave differently in cooking and baking. Some will caramelize and others will not. Some tend to re-crystallize; others do not. They have differing taste profiles that some people will find unpleasant and others will not. In the end, it comes down to finding what works best for you in terms of taste, glycemic response, intestinal side effects, and your comfort level with the source, degree of processing, and cost.
We are curious to hear what experiences you’ve had with natural low carb sweeteners. What are some of your favorites and why?
- Morning Pep Xylitol Granules (birch-derived & made in the US), available in 1 lb/2.5 lb/5 lb packages
- Health Garden Xylitol Granules (birch-derived & made in the US), available in 1 lb/3 lb/5 lb/10 lb packages, plus single-use packets
We generally use liquid formulations because they generally taste better:
- SweetLeaf Liquid Stevia Clear, available in 4 oz and 2 oz
- NuNaturals Liquid Stevia Clear, available in 2 oz
- SweetLeaf Sweetdrops Flavors, 2 oz, these are some of our favorites
If you prefer a powdered formulation, these are the only ones we recommend:
- SweetLeaf Sweetener Powder, 4 oz (blend of stevia leaf extract and inulin soluble vegetable fiber)
- Sweetleaf Sweetener Packets, 70 count, 2.5 oz box (blend of stevia leaf extract and inulin soluble vegetable fiber)
- Swerve Sweetener, Granular (blend of erythritol and oligosaccharides), 16 oz
- Swerve Sweetener, Confectioners (blend of erythritol and oligosaccharides), 16 oz
- Sukrin Gold Brown Sugar Alternative (blend of erythritol, tagatose, glycerol, malt extract, steviol glycosides), 550 g