No one subject strikes a sense of fear in the world of Ketonians than that of spiking insulin in their bodies. All our research shows that the very basis of ketosis relies on keeping one’s insulin levels or glycemic index* even and stable throughout the day instead of the crazy highs and lows associated with the Western diet.
The very mention of sweeteners and sweet treats in a keto group, is enough to create a frenzy of very different opinions, with each countering the last point and explaining instead, why they are right and all the others are wrong. The bigger question is, are sweets a good option at all for a ketogenic lifestyle at all? 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 artificial sweeteners? How do we know what side to believe and which option is best for our own continued good health?
In my role as admin for a growing FB Keto community, one of the questions I am often asked first by new members is about what sweeteners are best. Which should they use? What type works best in a particular recipe. My advice is always to hold off 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. It needs a chance to get 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 substitutes, you’re often doing more harm than good. Stick to real foods: veggies, healthy fats and proteins and 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. If you’re already there, lets look at some things we should watch for.
- 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.
- 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 people who are living with Diabetes (and Ketonians). The amount of fillers in these ingredients won’t break the carb bank, but they can certainly spike insulin 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.
- 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 stall you, 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 WOE.
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 and bloating.
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 carbohydrates that the human body does not completely absorb. The questionable part is the word completely. In a basic keto nutrition equation, you subtract fiber from carbs to get your total net carbs. Sugar alcohols complicate this equation greatly. The Keto world is split evenly between subtracting all the sugar alcohols from the equation or subtracting half to get the net carbs.
100g of Carbs per 100g – 100 SA’s = 0 Or
100g of carbs per 100g – 50 SA’s =50
There is no definite rule for counting carbs content in sugar alcohols, the effect differs for each individual. My suggestion is to be cautious when consuming food items 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 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 using these with extreme caution or not at all in Ketogenic living. Part of the basis for the Keto Way of life is clean living and you can’t do that with a belly full of chemicals.
Artificial sweeteners are found in many processed and sugar-free foods. These sweeteners should be avoided because they are toxic to the brain, destroy healthy gut bacteria, and may even cause weight gain by deregulating metabolism.
There have been many studies done on artificial sweeteners, and many done to counter act those initial studies. In my opinion, there is far too much controversy surrounding this topic and in a world where, when there is smoke, it usually means fire…. I’ll stay away.
There is inconclusive evidence about their safety in the long-term and even though many of them are listed as 0 calories, be aware that legislation allow servings under 1 gram of carbs and under 4 calories per serving to be labeled as 0. So those little packets often pack a punch with about .999 grams of glucose/dextrose mixed with a small dose of an artificial sweetener, to reach the desired sweetness.
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.
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 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.
Please note that certain brands of granulated stevia such as Stevia in the Raw can contain the dextrose and or maltodextrin.
- 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.
- 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, 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.
The Bad: be careful
#5 Xylitol (Sugar Alcohol) – Sweetness: Equivalent in sweetness to table sugar.
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.
Sucralose (Artificial or chemical Sweetener) – Sweetness: 320- 1000 times sweeter than sugar.
Sucralose is a chemical sweetener that is produced by chlorination of sucrose. It is heavily debated in the Keto world. Many claim it has a glycemic index of 0, while other say it drives their blood sugars through the roof.
There is a lack of evidence supporting the benefit of Sucralose, 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 favour that is often hidden.
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.