Sugar is a popular sweetener used in cooking and baking. It comes in many different forms including monosaccharide form (fructose, galactose, and glucose), disaccharide form (lactose, maltose, and sucrose), and in xylose form (found in wood).
These forms of sugar all end up breaking down into glucose, which is the body’s primary nutrient for making ATP (energy).
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Some individuals however, such as diabetics, people with poorly functioning kidneys, or children with epilepsy, must closely monitor their sugar and overall carbohydrate intake, making the need for sugar-free options and alternatives critical.
Also, as people are becoming more aware of the dangers of a high sugar intake, it is becoming more and more common for people to take control of their health and life and switch to sugar-free or low-carbohydrate sweeteners.
Alternatives to sugar or low-carbohydrate based sweeteners come in three forms: natural sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and artificial sweeteners.
Natural sweeteners still contain glucose, such as sugar, but have a lower percentage of carbohydrates.
Sugar alcohols contain carbs, but these sweet carbs are not able to be fully digested (similar to fiber), meaning they are excreted and therefore, their net carbs amount is zero. They are either naturally found in fruits and vegetables or they are processed from cornstarch.
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes, though sucralose (Splenda) is derived from sugar itself. Many artificial sweeteners have been found to cause serious health ailments and side effects, but sucralose has not, for it is the only artificial sweetener to cause no adverse health effects in healthy individuals as of 2019. (1)
Here’s a list of low-carb and sugar-free sweeteners you can have:
1. Monk Fruit
Monk fruit has definitely grown in popularity over the past few years and is a great sweeter option for individuals on a ketogenic diet. It is 100% natural and has a glycemic index of zero, and its net carbs per 100 grams of monk fruit is between zero and 25 grams. It is extremely low in calories, ranging from 0-10. It is utilized (metabolized) by the human body in small quantities, with most of it being excreted.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol which is found in various fruits and vegetables, such as corn. It has no effect on blood sugar, having a glycemic index of zero.
This sugar alcohol, unlike other sugar alcohols, has little to no effect at all on digestion, though sugar alcohols escape metabolism in the small intestine and move to the large intestine where they are fermented by our gut microflora. The microflora then releases gas and pull in more water than usual, leading to constipation, discomfort, gas, and bloating, which turns in diarrhea.
Erythritol is different in that it is partially metabolized in the small intestine, where the rest of it is excreted via the urinary tract instead of the colon. It is 30% less sweet than sugar, but due to its inability to affect the GI tract by much, using more should not cause any trouble!
Stevia, one of the most popular new sugar-substitutes on the market, due to the fact that it is 100% natural and has a glycemic index of zero, meaning it does not affect blood sugar that much. It has around 5 grams of carbs per 100 grams of stevia.
It cannot be utilized (metabolized) by the human body, meaning that we excrete any stevia we intake. It has zero calories and is 300 times sweeter than sugar and can cause digestive complications if consumed in excess, meaning a little amount goes a long way!
When purchasing stevia, try to get the liquid form if possible, for it is pure. Powdered stevia is also a great option, but make sure it only contains stevia and no other additives.
4. Monk Fruit and Erythritol Blend
Monk fruit, though it is a phenomenal alternative to sugar, does tend to have an aftertaste, turning some people away.
Due to this fact, many people mix it with erythritol (or purchase it premixed) at a 1:1 ratio (meaning per teaspoon of monk fruit, add a teaspoon of erythritol). It makes monk fruit more palatable and gives it a taste similar to sugar, cutting away the bitter after taste.
5. Stevia and Erythritol Blend
Stevia is incredibly sweet, where a tiny amount can be too sweet if you are not careful. If you want to use stevia, but want to cut back on the sweetness, combine it with erythritol (which also comes packaged premixed).
When mixing these this natural sweetener and sugar alcohol, be mindful of the ratio. Per 1 cup of erythritol, add only 2 teaspoons of stevia.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol, tasting almost identical to sugar. It has between 35-42% less calories than sugar and has a glycemic index of 13, meaning that there is little effect on blood sugar, for it is considered to be a low glycemic index food (<50).
It is digested and absorbed very slowly, where most of it goes to the large intestine for fermentation by the gut microflora. You must be careful though, for it can cause GI discomfort, such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea, and is incredibly toxic to dogs and cats, even in small doses. Make sure to keep it far away from pets!
Mannitol is a sugar alcohol that is derived from various plants. It is made from fructose and hydrogen and tastes almost identically to sugar. It contains 1-2 calories per gram and has a glycemic index of only 2.
Only a small amount can be absorbed in the small intestine, leaving the rest of it to be fermented in the large intestine by the gut microflora, meaning if consumed in high amounts, it can cause severe gas and bloating, turning into diarrhea. It is recommended that no more than 20 grams per day be consumed.
Inulin is a natural sweetener, made up of a long chain of complex carbohydrates and is typically extracted from plants, such as chicory root. It is not very sweet, making up only 28-33% of the sweetness of sugar, which some people actually prefer.
It has a glycemic index of zero and has only 1 gram of net carbs per 100 grams of inulin. It has 150 calories however, so make sure to not use too much if you want to keep your calories somewhat low. It is not appropriate for individuals with any GI disease or disorders of the digestive system, for inulin could exacerbate the symptoms.
9. Yacon Syrup
Yacon syrup is a natural sweetener found in yacon plant roots and is rich in fructooligosaccharides, which is a soluble fiber that the body excretes and it helps lower blood pressure and blood sugar.
It contains 20 calories per tablespoon and has around 11 grams of carbs, even though those carbs do NOT affect blood sugar, due to the fiber content. Do not cook with yacon syrup though, for when introduced to high temperatures, it breaks down into simple sugars, which can be utilized by the body.
Allulose, a low-carb, natural sweetener that many people have never even heard of. It is composed of a monosaccharide, which is considered to be a simple sugar. This monosaccharide can be found in wheat, raisins, maple syrup, jackfruit, and figs.
Allulose has zero net carbohydrates because the monosaccharide it is made up of cannot be utilized (metabolized) by the human body, therefore it is excreted. It is not as sweet as sugar, so in order to get the taste of sugar, you would need to use 30% more allulose, which is a safer and healthier option still, for it is incredibly low in calories and does not affect blood sugar.
11. Sucralose in Liquid Form
Sucralose is an artificial sweetener, commonly sold as Splenda. This product, in a pure form, causes no adverse health effects and has a glycemic index of zero.
The liquid form of sucralose is typically a pure form, whereas the powdered sucralose has additives, giving it a high glycemic index and many carbs. You only need a tiny amount of the liquid sucralose, for it is 550-600 times sweeter than sugar.
The best sugar alternatives for keto dieters are monk fruit, stevia, erythritol or a blend of these two or three.