How to Differentiate Amongst Sugar Substitutes
One of the most common questions we receive from people beginning their low-carb journey is how to differentiate amongst the many sugar substitutes available on the market. There is a great deal of confusion about which sweetener options are best and which ones are just sugar in disguise. Here we review a few of the best options and a few of the worst with a little explanation as to why we put each in their category.
To understand why some sweeteners are better than others on a low-carb diet, it is important to talk about Glycemic Index (GI). This is a system for ranking how quickly and the degree to which blood glucose levels are impacted by foods after being eaten. Foods with a high GI will cause massive glycemic changes and those with a low GI will cause less dynamic changes. Those looking to keep their blood sugar levels low (or avoid dramatic glycemic fluctuations) would typically look for lower GI foods.
A quick look at this GI chart of some of the more commonly used sweeteners/sugars shows which ones to avoid, but often, in real life, it’s not so simple.
It is fairly straightforward to see that based on GI, the first six items on this list are best to avoid – they will create big blood glucose fluctuations and with it, increased hunger and cravings. If you have diabetes or insulin resistance, these shifts in blood sugar have additional negative implications.
What is less obvious are the artificial sweeteners aspartame, saccharin and sucralose, commonly known by their brand names, respectively, Equal, Sweet n Low and Splenda. While these three sweeteners in their pure form often have little impact on blood sugar, a quick look at the brand packaging we are most familiar with shows that the sweeteners are mixed with higher GI fillers. Dextrose is the first ingredient listed on each of these packets – meaning there is more dextrose in each package, with a GI of 100, than any other ingredient. If you use any of these sweeteners, the best bet is to purchase the pure form of them rather than the more readily available packets that abound. The same can be said for the product Stevia in the Raw. While the name is evocative of a healthy, natural product, a quick look at the small print on the back of the package shows the deceptive nature of food manufacturers. The first ingredient here, too, is dextrose.
In addition, some of these high GI sweeteners can bring extreme gastrointestinal issues when consumed in both large and small quantities. After eating the sugar alcohol maltitol, many experience stomachaches, gas and bloating. It has also been known to cause diarrhea, so proceed with caution.
Monk fruit has been used for over a thousand years and comes from a small fruit called Luo Han Guo that is part of the gourd family. It is native to China and was nicknamed monk fruit after the group of monks who discovered the sweet properties of the plant. Monk fruit has a negligible impact on blood sugar.
Other low GI sugar substitutes, like erythritol, belong to the class of sweeteners called sugar alcohols. These are usually derived from plant sources like fruit and berries and are converted to glucose slowly by the body, so they generally do not need the body to release insulin to be metabolized. This means they will have very little impact on blood sugar. Food manufacturers also use sugar alcohols because they act as a bulking agent in a similar fashion to sugar but with about one third less calories. The one drawback is that sugar alcohols can also lead to some gastric issues, so it is best to try them in small amounts before adding them into your diet in any quantity.
Monk fruit and the sugar alcohol erythritol are often combined because together they give the most sugar-like feel and taste “When formulating our recipes, we experimented with a number of sweeteners and ended up using an erythritol and monk fruit blend. Other sugar substitutes did not bake very well, but this combo blend was easy to work into our low carb and sugar free recipes because it best matched the flavor of sugar and was closest to a one-to-one substitution ratio to sugar,” explains ROSETTE’S founder and product developer Rosette Kalayjian. “We were also happily surprised that with this particular combination, our palates were not hit with the bitter or cooling aftertaste that is common with sugar replacements. Best of all we have never had a spike in blood sugar after eating any of our no-sugar confections!”
Rule of thumb with all sweeteners, either artificial or sugar alcohols: context is everything. Remember what they are replacing and decide what is the best you can do in any given circumstance. If weight loss is your primary focus, then the use of these products may impact your goals because all sweeteners, no matter how much they affect your blood sugar, can lead to cravings and stoke the desire to overconsume them. If you find yourself regularly overeating low-carb sweets it is a good idea to reevaluate your relationship with them and decide if it might be necessarily to eliminate them temporarily or long-term.
Also, always remember that individual mileage may vary and to view yourself as a science experiment: if you notice you have cravings or a stomachache every time you eat sweeteners, use that information to help inform your future decisions. If eating something sweetened with sugar alcohols or monk fruit is going to give you cravings, but keep you on your low-carb path, then it should be viewed as a big win.