Sugar is horrible for health. That's a fact.
Cutting out sugar is a key part of a keto diet. But, that doesn’t mean you have to avoid sweetness altogether. Many people still regularly rely on low carb and keto sweeteners.
These are a powerful way to add a sweet taste to your food, without compromising your health goals. But first, you have to figure out which sweetener (or sweeteners) to use.
There are many different options. And honestly, they can get confusing.
In this guide, we’re looking at the various sweeteners and how they compare to one another.
Sugar Alcohol Keto Sweeteners
Sugar alcohols are often called zero carb and zero calorie sweeteners. The reason is that carbs present aren’t absorbed. As a result, calculations for net carbs often look like this:
Net Carbs = Total Carbs – Fiber – Sugar Alcohol.
But, this isn’t strictly accurate.
Some of the carbs in sugar alcohols are still absorbed. Most sugar alcohols will still affect blood sugar and digestion, to some degree. Many people find that they have a laxative effect as well.
There are multiple ways around this issue.
- Avoid sugar alcohols entirely. Focus on other sweeteners instead.
- Use sugar alcohols sparingly.
- Use a different calculation for net carbs, such as: Net Carbs = Total Carbs – Fiber – ½ Sugar Alcohol.
- Count sugar alcohols as full carbs in your calculations. This overestimates your carb intake but is the safest approach. However, it will mean you have less flexibility in your diet.
If you do plan to use them, you’ll need to figure out which sugar alcohols are the best choice. The items below are some of the main examples.
The site Legion Athletics offers more details about the types of sugar alcohols and the various implications for your body.
This is an incredibly popular and well-studied sugar alternative. It is produced through the fermentation of sugars naturally found in corn.
- Considered the safest natural sweetener, due to the large amount of research conducted on it. Researchers haven’t found cancer-causing impacts either, unlike with artificial sweeteners (1,2,3).
- Estimated at a GI of zero and 0.2 calories per gram (4).
- Does not affect blood sugar or insulin levels (5,6).
- Can be used as a 1:1 replacement for sugar in most situations.
- Does not have a negative impact on bacteria in the gut (7).
- May have dental benefits, helping to reduce bacteria in the mouth.
- Some brands may contain GMOs (as erythritol is produced from corn). However, there are many non-GMO brands as well, it’s just a matter of reading labels carefully.
The site Healthline offers more details about the way that erythritol works and the science behind its impacts.
Side Effects: Can have a laxative impact, although this is relatively rare (8).
Products: Many companies sell 100% erythritol products, which are easy to spot. One popular example comes from Now Foods. The So Nourished brand from Tasteaholics also offers a powdered erythritol and a granular erythritol product, if you need more variation.
Other products use erythritol in combination with other ingredients, like:
- Swerve. Contains erythritol, oligosaccharides and natural flavors. As a result, it both tastes and measures like sugar. This is an incredibly common choice and one of the closest substitutes to sugar out there.
- Lakanto Monkfruit. A combination of erythritol and monk fruit extract. Can also be used in the same ratios as sugar.
- Sukrin Gold. Includes erythritol and stevia, along with some other ingredients. This is designed as a low carb brown sugar replacement. It is popular and commonly recommended.
This is another common choice, although it is less popular than erythritol and has fewer advantages.
- Has a good safety profile in humans. Has little impact on blood sugar and insulin (9,10).
- Toxic to dogs.
- GI is around 7 (compared to 100 for sugar) (11).
- Can have a cooling effect in the mouth.
- May improve dental health (12,13).
- Small levels are found in fruits and vegetables. But, the production process is complicated and involves many steps, including hydrogenation.
- Most xylitol is produced from corn cellulose, although some comes from tree bark instead.
Side Effects: Can cause stomach upsets in some people – especially if consumed in large quantities.
Other Sugar Alcohols
Erythritol and xylitol are the most popular sugar alcohols and the most commonly recommended. They’re also the best place to start – simply because they have been researched in more depth.
But, other sugar alcohols can be effective on a keto or a low-carb diet. Some examples include maltitol, mannitol and sorbitol. Because they are sugar alcohols, their impacts are similar to erythritol and xylitol.
These sweeteners are ones that you might find added to various foods and they are considered safe. But, they’re not options that you’d keep in your cupboard and use in cooking.
Other Types of Natural Sweetener
Sugar alcohols are a common option but they can cause side effects in some people. The options below are other low carb sweeteners that you can turn to instead.
Stevia is probably the most well-known natural sweetener. It is produced from the species Stevia rebaudiana. The active compounds are steviol glycosides, which are responsible for the sweetness.
- Has 0 GI and will not impact blood sugar levels
- The whole leaf version is less processed than most other sweeteners
- A popular product and research has shown that it is safe
- Has a bitter aftertaste that many people find unappealing
Katie from Wellness Mama provides additional insight into stevia and the different types.
Forms of Stevia: There are three main types of stevia and they have different implications.
- Powdered stevia. This is produced through an industrial process and relies on the glycoside rebaudioside for sweetness. That compound provides most of the sweetness but is not associated with health benefits.
- Liquid stevia. As the name suggests, this is liquid rather than a powder. However, the general process is similar and there is considerable processing involved.
- Whole leaf stevia. This version is simply the leaves from stevia (powdered versions exist too). It has a subtler sweetness and an increased bitter aftertaste. There may also be health benefits to this form, such as decreasing inflammation and improving insulin and blood sugar levels (14,15).
Side Effects: May disrupt gut flora for some people. Does not often cause digestive issues on its own – but products that contain sugar alcohols as well may result in effects like diarrhea and bloating.
Products: Stevia is incredibly popular, so there are many products for each of the forms.
But, be careful about the brand you choose. Many contain multiple sweeteners. Such products are still useful, as long as they are what you want.
- Pyure Organic Stevia Blend. This blend contains erythritol, stevia extract and natural flavors. Erythritol is also the primary ingredient (by weight), even though this is marketed as a stevia product. The same company has multiple items in their range, giving you plenty of choices.
- SweetLeaf Sweet Drops. A liquid version of stevia. It contains multiple extra ingredients but these are mostly to create a usable liquid version. Stevia is the only sweetener present.
- Stevia in the Raw. A popular product that is zero calorie. However, the primary ingredient by weight is dextrose.
Also called Luo Han Guo, monk fruit sweetener is extracted from the pulp of monk fruit and then fermented. The fermentation process removes the sugars, without impacting the sweetness.
This makes it a very natural product – one that is roughly 200 times sweeter than sugar.
- Doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste.
- Won’t raise blood sugar levels.
- Tends to be popular.
- Products just containing monk fruit are often too intense, so the sweetener is often mixed with others.
Side Effects: There isn’t much information available on side effects. But, as always, don’t consume the sweetener excessively.
Products: Many monk fruit products blend the sweetener – and this isn’t always obvious from the packaging. Blended isn’t necessarily bad but some ingredient choices are better than others.
- Pure Monk. This is pure monk fruit, nothing more. It makes for a potent sweetener, although some people find it a little bitter.
- Lakanto Monkfruit. Contains a combination of erythritol and monk fruit extract. Acts as a 1:1 substitute for sugar.
- Monk Sweet Plus. Includes monk fruit, stevia and erythritol.
Less Common Options
As with sugar alcohols, there are other sweeteners that you’ll find. Some of them will be used in sweetener blends, while others may be ingredients in processed foods.
One class of these is the prebiotic fibers, such as oligosaccharides and isomaltooligosaccharides. As prebiotics, these may offer benefits to gut bacteria. But, they’re rarely used on their own as sweeteners.
Another example is tagatose, which is developed from whey. This one is sometimes considered natural and sometimes artificial, depending on your definition. The site Nutrients Review offers more detail about it.
Which Low Carb Sweetener is Best?
Ultimately, there isn’t a single answer. The best choice will depend on your carb intake each day and your taste preferences.
Opinions vary as well.
For example, erythritol is one of the most popular natural sweeteners and is common on low carb and keto diets. Yet, some authors recommend against it, with Dr. Axe being one of them.
Similar patterns exist for most sweeteners. This means you need to decide for yourself – and you may need to try multiple products to find your best fit.
It’s also important to pay close attention to brands and ingredient labels. Many companies use multiple sweeteners at the same time. That includes combining natural and artificial sweeteners. I’ve even seen some processed products include both sugar and sugar alternatives.
What About Natural Sugar Substitutes?
Many people turn to these when avoiding sugar. There are many examples, including the following:
- Agave syrup
- Maple syrup
- Barley malt syrup
- Coconut sugar
- Date sugar
- Rice syrup
- Yacon syrup
- Sorghum syrup
Like regular sugar, you could include them on a keto diet, as long as you were careful about your carb intake.
But, they are still simply sources of sugar. They have significant impacts on blood sugar levels as well. Some may be better than others. But, for most keto dieters, it’s best to avoid them entirely.
Are Artificial Sweeteners Healthy?
Sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose have received considerable negative press recently. This is partly due to animal studies, which have linked long-term use to impacts like obesity, weight gain and cancer (16,17,18).
Research in humans also suggests that the compounds may contribute to glucose intolerance and obesity (19). One reason is that the sweeteners may increase sugar cravings and make weight loss more difficult (20).
Honestly, we still don’t know the implications of artificial sweeteners.
The current studies are enough to raise concerns. But, we don’t know much about long-term moderate use in humans.
Should you avoid them?
Probably. There are enough negative studies to suggest that we should be cautious with artificial sweeteners. Besides, there are plenty of natural sweeteners to choose from.
Which Sweeteners are Artificial?
One final thing. Artificial and natural sweeteners aren’t as different as you might expect.
Most sweeteners have been processed to some degree. Likewise, most come from a natural source initially.
People also vary in how they define natural versus artificial. For example, Nutrition Advance considers both xylitol and erythritol to be natural sweeteners, while Dr. Axe considers all sugar alcohols to be artificial and risky.
In all honestly, a sweetener isn’t dangerous because it is artificial and it isn’t safe just because it is natural. Sugar is natural after all. We need to consider the impacts on the body instead. The list below highlights key sweeteners that may have negative health impacts.
- Aspartame (present in Equal and Nutrasweet). The most controversial artificial sweetener. This has been linked to carcinogenic impacts, increased oxidative stress and damage to fetal development (21,22). Side effects are common as well, including dizziness, headaches and even mood disorders.
- Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K) (present in Sweet One and Sunett). A key problem is research – there simply hasn’t been much. Most studies were completed back in the 1970s and they weren’t very good studies either. The sweetener may also contain methylene chloride, which has been linked to health problems (24). The FDA is confident that the compound isn’t present in large quantities and may not be there at all (25). But, this is still a cause for concern, especially due to the limited research.
- Saccharin (present in Sweet and Low and Necta Sweet). Some studies have linked this to bladder cancer, although the effect has not been observed in humans (26). The compound may also cause side effects, including nausea, digestive problems and potentially cancer development (27).
- Sucralose (present in Splenda). Sucralose is a chlorinated derivative of sucrose. Research shows that it can break down at high temperatures to produce dangerous compounds. It isn’t biologically inert either, which could lead to other unanticipated impacts (28).
Most of these risks here aren’t proven and may not occur. But, with many safer options out there, why risk it?
Stevia, monk fruit, erythritol and xylitol are all popular low carb sweeteners that are effective. The first two are perfect if you want to avoid sugar alcohols – but all four can work well.
All of them are processed to some degree. The least processed option would be whole stevia leaves. However, these aren’t always practical and there are fewer high quality brands.
Many bloggers turn to blends that contain two or more of these sweeteners. The blends help to mask any distinct flavors and can create a more balanced sweetness overall. The images below show key examples.
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