Keto Sweeteners- The good, the bad and the ugly

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The basic goal of ketogenic living revolves around keeping our blood glucose level (and therefore our insulin level) at a low and steady rate all day, every day.  We avoid anything that would cause a unstable blood glucose level and or the crazy highs and lows that are often associated with the Western diet.

The very mention of sweeteners and sweet treats in a keto community, is enough to create a frenzy of very different opinions of which are better tasting, and which are more effective at creating that stable blood glucose level.

Studies have shown that the very act of holding a sweet substance in your mouth without even swallowing that substance will cause an insulin response. With that knowledge in mind, how do we make our way through the ever-growing information available on the subject of sweeteners? How do we know  which option is best for our own continued good health?

In my role as admin for a growing Facebook Keto community, one of the questions I am often asked  by new members is about what sweeteners are best. Which should they use? What type works best in a particular recipe.

My advice is not going the be the popular answer most would expect. Our belief is, in the early days anyway, its best to refrain from any sweetener as part of your initial detox and give your body a chance to heal. It’s had a lifetime of trying to process chemicals and an abundance of sugar-laden foods, now it just needs a chance to catch up as it gets used to the new directive you are giving it: to relearn how to rid itself of the toxins that were a part of its everyday life. If you switch from Western diet, and go right into high gear in keto sweet substitutes, you’re often doing more harm than good.

Quality really matters in the early days. Its when you are training your body on what comes next and what you do then will set the tone for the rest of your keto life. Stick to real foods: veggies, healthy fats and proteins and for sweets, in moderate berries. When you’ve been in ketosis for a while and your body has adjusted, then slowly start to add some keto food replacements.

Lets look at some things we should watch for when we are considering sweeteners.

  1. Natural doesn’t mean its keto!

Don’t fall prey to the people who are paid to convince you that their product is natural, therefore they must be good for you.  Companies employ full teams of people whose only job is to convince you that you need their product. Their goal is to do such a good job with their ad campaigns that you, the consumer doesn’t even need to think about what’s in the list of ingredients. Many sweeteners have too many carbs for a ketogenic lifestyle

Take a look at some carb counts of sweeteners in comparison to sugar (4.2 grams per tsp), they may be natural but they are far from keto.

  • Brown sugar: 4.5 grams
  • Turbinado sugar: 4.6 grams
  • Honey: 5.75 grams.
  • Maple syrup: 4.5 grams
  • Agave nectar: 5.3 grams
  • Molasses: 5 grams

It doesn’t take a detective to see that these natural sweeteners have at least as many carbs per teaspoon as ordinary table sugar.

  1. Check for fillers.

If we think back to that study we looked at in the beginning of this article, we understand that even the very taste of sweet in your mouth can spike your insulin. Keeping this in mind, you only need a tiny bit of most sweeteners to get the same sweetness as a tablespoon of sugar. To make measurements comparable to what we’re used to, most companies add in fillers so that you can measure them like sugar.

That’s bad news for most people, these additives such as maltodextrin and dextrose are sugars in disguise. These ingredients are doing you no favours, especially for diabetics and Ketonians. The amount of fillers in these ingredients won’t break the daily carb bank, but they can certainly spike blood glucose levels causing an insulin response…and are best to be avoided. In general, liquid formula sweeteners tend to be safer in this aspect, but we still recommend you check ingredients, each and every time.

  1. Possible increased cravings and weight stalls

Scientific studies show that using any sweeteners, even those that have a Glycemic Index of 0, and zero calories may make it harder to lose weight. By adding sweeteners to any food you will significantly increase the reward sensation that you get with sugary foods. This sweet reward sensation can bounce off your pleasure receptors in your brain and trigger cravings in some people. This is turn can significantly increase the risk that you’ll not only eat more than you need, but also the possibility that it might derail your dietary way of eating. This can slow down weight loss, or even cause weight gain.

There are scientific studies showing that even adding non-caloric sweeteners to diet beverages may make it harder to lose weight. If you’re one of the people who have difficulty with this, you may be better off just avoiding sweeteners altogether. As a side note, for most people, sugary cravings decrease over time, which will make it easier to avoid them as you journey on your Keto way of eating.

4. Take care of your gut

Sometimes you have to look at the bigger picture of your overall health and not just the thought that these items can throw you out of ketosis. Recent studies show that gut bacteria can be vastly affected by sweeteners in a negative manner.

More and more research is pointing to the health of your gut as an indicator of possible predecessor of metabolic issues. We always have a mixture of good and bad bacteria, but sometimes the bad guys get the upper hand, causing an imbalance in gut bacteria. These imbalances have the potential to make you sick and can also play a strong role in a number of health conditions.

Consumption of some sweeteners such as xylitol, malitol or erythritol are to be closely monitored, as they are known to disrupt the gut microbiome in certain people, leading to digestive distress such as gas, bloating and diarrhea. Disaster pants is a real concern..and yes, that is what it sounds like.

While we still have much to learn about managing a healthy gut, this is indicating that we all need to take steps to maintain the right balance for our own bodies. This should be significant to anyone who is dealing with insulin resistance, blood sugar issues, or anyone who is generally interested in their overall health.

Sweetener Classes – Sugar Alcohols, Artificial and Natural

Sugar Alcohols: Erythritol, xylitol, mannitol, other sweeteners that end in -ol.

Health Canada Defines Sugar Alcohol as “a family of sweeteners also known as “polyols”, are used as food additives. They occur naturally in small amounts in fruits and vegetables, including berries, apples, and plums, but for large-scale commercial use they are manufactured from common sugars. While they are chemically very similar to sugars, they are less sweet than sugars and have fewer calories per gram.”

In layman’s terms, sugar alcohols are  a man made sweetener that are derived from a natural source (example- erythritol is a man made sugar alcohol made from the stevia plant)and are carbohydrates that the human body does not completely absorb. The questionable part is the word completely. We don’t know exactly how much is discarded as waste and how much is processed by our our body.- because of this reason, the community opinion is split.

In a basic keto nutrition equation, you subtract fiber from carbs to get your total net carbs. Sugar alcohols complicate this equation greatly. Do we subtract all the sugar alcohols from the equation or subtracting a portion of that number  to get the correct carb count. This is the reason some people choose to count total carbs, to avoid this ‘what if’.

Eg. Erythritol

100g of Carbs per 100g minus 100 Sugar alcohols = 0    O is it…

100g of carbs per 100g minus 50 Sugar alcohols =50

There is no definite rule for counting carb content in sugar alcohols, the effect differs for each individual. My suggestion is to be cautious when consuming food items that contain these items, they are not a free for all!

Also take caution with foods that claim to be sugar or carb free. The very idea of free foods, makes it easy to over consume and get yourself into trouble, especially when in the case of sugar alcohols where that bottom line is questionable. Over-consumption can result in digestive issues and in some cases weight gain. When you’re on a low-carb or Ketogenic diet, it’s better to be safe than sorry and always be skeptical. Always pay attention to any carbs consumed, even from alcohol sugars.

Sugar alcohols are known for sometimes cause digestive distress, such as mild cramping or bloating.

Artificial sweeteners: Saccharin, cyclamate, acesulfame, aspartame, sucralose, etc. (Sweet’n’low, Splenda, Equal, etc.):

Many of the most common artificial sweeteners out there, such as aspartame, sucralose, and splenda, are advertised as low glycemic and low in calories, but we suggest avoiding these at all costs if health is of any interest to you.  A major part of the Keto way of life is clean living and you can’t do that with a belly full of chemicals. These sweeteners are toxic to the brain, destroy healthy gut bacteria, and may even cause weight gain by disrupting metabolism.

Artificial sweeteners are found in many processed and sugar-free foods. There is evidence against their safety in the long-term and even though many of them are listed as 0 calories, most legislators allow servings under 1g carbs/4 calories per serving to be labeled as 0. So those little packets often pack a punch with about .999 grams of glucose/dextrose (sugar!!) mixed with a small dose of an artificial sweetener, to reach the desired sweetness. So they are toxic and full of hidden sugar to boot.

We’re crying fowl on all artificial sweeteners. At the end of the day, they’re just more chemicals that you and your body should avoid.

Natural Sweeteners: These are naturally occurring sweetener that are derived from plants, fruits or vegetable. Always check *glycemic index of each and never assume a sweetener is keto. Organic and natural does not mean it’s keto.

Finally, our recommendations

Keep in mind that these are just that, they are our own recommendations. As always, we recommend that you practice due diligence and do your own research. Here’s what we came up with, based on our own research and own experience.

The Good – we recommend

1 Stevia (Natural Sweetener)-  Sweetness: 200-350 times sweeter than sugar.

Stevia is from the extract of the herb Stevia rebaudiana, which is a plant in the ragweed family. Stevia is commonly known as ‘sugar or sweet  leaf’ and has been safely used for thousands of years. South American tribes used stevia to sweeten tea and because it was believed to have healing properties.

Pure stevia contains no calories, no carbs and is zero on the glycemic index, it has the added benefit of stabilizing blood sugar and insulin levels after a meal. Additionally, it is typically 200-300 times sweeter than table sugar, meaning you only need to use a little to get a sweet taste in foods. Another benefit to using stevia as a sweetener is that it adds a slight nutrient boost to foods. It’s a great additive sweetener on a keto diet for many occasions and can even have a positive health impact.

Some people complain that stevia leaves a bitter aftertaste, but in reality, that totally depends on an individual person’s perception and the level of sweetness that they are used to. Adding a small pinch of pink salt to stevia may reduce the aftertaste.

Never blindly trust the front of a product label, always check ingredients. If the front of the box says stevia, don’t assume its ONLY stevia in there!! Certain brands of  stevia such as Stevia in the Raw contain dextrose and or maltodextrin, both are hidden sugars.

  1. Erythritol (Sugar Alcohol) – Sweetness: 70% as sweet as sugar.

Erythritol was discovered in 1848 by Scottish chemist John Stenhouse and is derived from fruits, vegetables and fermented foods. Erythritol is a carbohydrate which can not be digested, it is quickly absorbed in the small intestine and is excreted through the urine. Minimal amounts reach the colon where other sugar alcohols end up causing diarrhea and other symptoms, so it causes very little gastric distress.

Erythritol has a glycemic index of zero and has zero calories per gram. It is heat stable up to 160 degrees (Celsius) and is the most expensive of the sugar alcohols to produce, making it difficult for food manufacturers to use it in commercial products. Erythritol is not that sweet on its own, so it’s often combined in foods and beverages with other sweeteners. Although it can have a slight cooling aftertaste, when combined with other sweeteners it is not very noticeable. Erythritol doesn’t dissolve as easily as sugar, especially in the granulated format. We recommend grinding it in a bullet or blender to reduce it to a confectioners formula, or powder.

Erythritol may not have any direct health benefits, but it has been proven to be non carcinogenic, which is a concern to most people who use sweeteners that are not natural. It has also been shown to not feed bacteria in the mouth, so it may be a good alternative to sugar for lack of cavities and tooth decay alone.

  1. Monk fruit powder (Natural Sweetener) – Sweetness: 300 times sweeter than sugar.

Monk fruit, is a small melon like fruit, also known as luo han guo or longevity fruit. It is named after the monks who originally harvested it in the Southern Chinese mountains and northern Thailand as early as the 13th century. It’s 300 times sweeter than sugar and has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat obesity, diabetes the common cold and was also used as a digestive aid.

Monk fruit has multiple medicinal benefits, including immune-boosting, anti-microbial and antioxidant properties. It provides liver protection, helps to lower cholesterol and also contains a compound that has the ability to inhibit tumor growth in pancreatic cancer. It does this by interfering with the rapid dividing of cancer cells, reducing blood flow to the tumor, promoting cancer cell death.

Monk fruit sweetener is made naturally from the antioxidants in the fruit and provides a low-calorie sweetness without the insulin spikes of sugar. It’s as sweet as stevia but without the bitter aftertaste of most stevia products.

#4 Swerve (Blended Sweetener) – Sweetness: Equivalent in sweetness to table sugar.

Swerve is all-natural, no-calorie, sweetener with excellent baking and cooking functionality. It is a short-chain carbohydrate that is derived from fruits and vegetables. It has the ability to brown and caramelize, Swerve is a great all-purpose substitution for sugar.

Swerve is a combination of erythritol, natural citrus flavor, and oligosaccharides (translated to very few sugars), Oligosaccharides are prebiotics, or non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth of prebiotic bacteria in the colon. We cannot digest and absorb oligosaccharides ourselves as we lack the enzymes needed to break them down, because of this, they don’t affect blood sugar.

There are some health benefits associated with Swerve, for example it helps in the promotion of good gut bacteria. Some studies also showed a reduction in cholesterol and triglycerides when using oligosaccharides. Not to mention, the prebiotics in the oligosaccharides may help encourage beneficial gut bacteria.

#5 Allulose (Psicose)

Allulose is a little different in that it is a mono saccharide, or simple sugar (the lowest form of carbohydrate) that is absorbed by the body but not metabolized , ie won’t cause a insulin response.  It a rare sugar that is naturally occurring yet hard to find  in nature and tastes (70% as sweet as sugar) and bakes/behaves the same as regular sugar would in recipes.

It is low in carbohydrates, will not affect blood glucose level or cause an insulin response.
around 70% of allulose is excreted in urine and it doesn’t usually ferment in the gut—meaning you won’t get gassy, bloated, or other digestive upset after eating it, unlike sugar alcohols.

Its popular within the keto and low carb communities as one of the sweeteners that can be used in ice cream but will not frreeze it into a solid chunk.

#6 Bochasweet (Pentose)

Bochasweet is a zero calorie, zero glycemic sweetener that tastes identical to sugar without the bitter aftertaste. It originates from a low temperature extraction of the kabocha squash/pumpkin, which has been used in the Japanese diet for centuries and has been  hailed as a super-food in its own right.

Bochasweet has a 1:1 usage ratio with sugar and will not cause a blood glucose response. Early studies for Pentose show that can assist weight loss & support healthy blood sugar level

The Bad: be careful

#5 Xylitol (Sugar Alcohol) – Sweetness: Equivalent in sweetness to table sugar. xylitol toxic for pets

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that naturally occurs in the fibers of fruits and vegetables in small amounts. It is produced commercially from corn cobs or birch trees. It’s a sugar substitute that tastes like sugar but has fewer calories and is one of the most frequently used sweeteners in sugar-free chewing gum and mouthwash.

Xylitol has a GI of 13 and only 50% is absorbed in your small intestine. It has minor impact on blood sugar and insulin levels when used in small amounts, but over 40 grams per day can cause gastric distress. Like erythritol, it’s been shown to help with dental health by starving the bad bacteria in the mouth, which will help to prevent cavities. Xylitol can help to increase collagen production and may prevent osteoporosis. It’s also used in cosmetics and medicines and may help promote good bacteria in the gut.

Also, be aware Xylitol is very toxic for dogs, so err on the side of caution! If you have pets, choose another option.

Maltitol (Sugar Alcohol) – Sweetness: 80% as sweet as sugar

Maltitol is a sugar alcohol that is not a good choice for people on low-carb or ketogenic diets. It is the sweetener most often used in sugar-free candy, deserts and other low carb treats because is has a taste that is similar to sugar and also because it is considerably less expensive to produce than other sugar alcohols.

Maltitol has a high glycemic index (which means it spikes blood sugars) and can cause a lot of gastric distress. It is known for its laxative effects and it’s commonly associated with stomach issues including bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. We recommend you avoid this one at all costs.

The ugly

Sucralose (Artificial or chemical Sweetener) – Sweetness: 320- 1000 times sweeter than sugar.

Sucralose is a chemical sweetener that is produced by chlorination of sugar/sucrose. It is sugar that has been chemically enhanced. Avoid.

There is a lack of evidence supporting the benefit of Sucralose in a ketogenic diet, in fact most data points to probably weight gain and heart disease risks with use. Use of Sucralose, most commonly known as Splenda, was rampant in the early 2000’s, but with rumours of an unpublished study linking Sucralose consumption with leukemia risk in rats, people began to shy away.

Chemical sweeteners such as Sucralose have been shown to impact our primary immune systems by interrupting our gut bacteria.  We recommend avoiding Sucralose at all costs.

Aspartame (Artificial/Chemical Sweetener) – Sweetness: 200 times sweeter than sugar

Aspartame is a chemical sweetener made up of aspartic acid and phenylalanine. It is probably the most controversial sweetener of all. Numerous allegations have been made connecting aspartame to multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus, methanol toxicity, and blindness, seizures, headaches, and mood changes. Aspartame is sold under the brand names NutraSweet and Equal and is used in many low carb products and diet drinks currently on the market.

Our recommendation is to avoid it, as there are many other safer and non-controversial sweeteners available. Better to be safe than sorry.

Saccharin (Artificial/Chemical Sweetener) – Sweetness: 300-400 times sweeter than sugar

Saccharine is a chemical sweetener manufactured by combining anthranilic acid, nitrous acid, sulfur dioxide, chlorine, and ammonia. (Yes, Chlorine and ammonia!) It was first produced in 1878 by a chemist working at Johns Hopkins University who noticed that his hand tasted sweet.

This is one of the oldest synthetic sweeteners, first showing up around 150 years ago. After studies linked saccharine use in rats to cancer in the 70’s, all saccharin products had to place a warning label that it may induce cancer in people or animals. Saccharine is also known for leaving an extremely bitter aftertaste and has drastically decreased in commercial and personal use in current times.

We don’t recommend the use of Saccharine.

The takeaway – A final word on keto sweeteners

While some sweeteners seem to be better than others, the best advice for ketogenic living, health and weight loss may be learning to enjoy real foods in their unsweetened state. Although it might take a little time for you and your taste buds to adapt, you may discover a whole new appreciation for the natural, unprocessed flavour that is often hidden.

Please keep in mind that we all respond differently to sweeteners, so the glycemic indexes are a standardized number.  In reality what affects you, will vary in another individual by about 30%, who will vary from the next person by about 30% and so on, and so on. We are all different.

The jury is still out on whether these some of these substitutes are truly harmless alternatives to sugar. Always take caution and research every label and every dish. Don’t let your health lie in the hand of the company that makes and product and profits when you purchase it to consume. It’s important not to switch from one harmful food item to a substitute that’s just as bad, so be careful what you eat.

In my opinion, the main takeaway at this point is to maybe think twice about whether you really want to be consuming these sweeteners on an everyday basis. As always, moderation seems to be key. It’s unrealistic to think that we must go through life without indulging in a sweet treat, but in our pursuit for health, be smart and choose wisely.

*The glycemic index (GI) refers to how much a food raises blood sugar. It runs from zero to 100, zero representing no raise in blood sugar and insulin levels. The goal with the ketogenic diet is to remain in ketosis, so staying as close as possible to zero GI for sweeteners is the best choice.

That’s it for this time! Thanks for joining me for another East Coast Keto Life Lesson.  There’s still a lot to learn and we’re glad you’re along for the ride!

Keep Keto-ing with one foot in front of the other. Keto seconds lead to keto moments, Keto moments lead to keto days. Keto days will take you on a successful keto journey life time. We’ll meet you THERE!!

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