The low-down on the most popular low carbohydrate sweeteners.
Most people that start a low cab eating plan find that they have some intense cravings for sugar in the beginning. These do tend to dissipate after a few weeks but even the most seasoned low carb eater will tell you that every once in a while, there is a desire to have something on the sweeter side. This is where sweeteners come in.
In general, there are a few classifications of sweeteners. There are natural sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and synthetic sweeteners (or artificial sweeteners). There are a few others that are not exactly classified in these categories (like glycerin based sweeteners) but they are quite uncommon and willnot be discussed here today.
For those really watching their carbohydrate intake and still wanting to maintain a whole-foods based eating plan, I personally suggest sticking with erythritol and stevia (or a blend) asthey are both naturally occurring, do not cause blood sugar or insulin spikes, and sweeten just perfectly. When used in combination, they seem to cancel out the aftertaste that each has, and work really well.
When purchasing sweeteners make sure to take a look at the ingredient list. You want the pure sweetener rather than those containing other fillers including maltodextrin, dextrose, or polydextrose. These can cause spikes in blood sugars. Fillers can also add unnecessary carbohydrates to your sweeteners and are best avoided.
Stevia is a herb that is commonly known as the sugar leaf. The completely nutrient-free extract has grown tremendously in popularity over the last few years and is used very commonly now.
Stevia can be quite good for you. It has been shown to reduce blood pressure slightly, lower blood glucose and insulin levels in diabetics, and has had great results in animal testing for anti-inflammatory purposes.
When purchasing, your best option is a liquid based product. Typically this is raw powdered stevia mixed with a solution that keeps it pure. If you purchase powdered stevia, it is commonly mixed with other sweeteners that can cause problems and being mindful of ingredients is important.
It is a great additive sweetener for your low carbohydrate lifestyle. If using in cooking, pair with other sweeteners as in liquid form it will not provide the physical bulk you need.
Not to be confused with insulin, inulin is a natural based sweetener that is commonly extracted from chicory root. According to studies, you can absorb some of the inulin you digest and the words on the packaging may not always reflect this fact.
Inulin works well as a mixture with other sweeteners. It adds sweetness, can caramelize like sugar, and typically has little to no after-taste like you may find with others.
Even though this should not cause any gastric distress within normal daily doses (20 grams), it can have a laxative effect if over-consumed. Some studies have even shown it to have pre-biotic effects and can help our digestive systems in a normal manner.
Use sparingly to mix into other sweeteners (like erythritol) to reduce after-taste and to increase cooking ability.
Also known as Luo Han Guo, monk fruit is native to China. It is extremely sweet (about 300 times as sweet as sugar) and has been used as a traditional medicine to treat obesity and diabetes.
Although gaining in popularity, it can be more difficult to find and is rather pricey can be quite to purchase in its pure form. Generally it is found mixed with other higher carbohydrate sweeteners that you may be avoiding. Again, read your ingredient list.
Eryhthritol is typically found in fruits and vegetables, and is commonly extracted from corn.
You can consume a good amount of it, at about 1 gram of the sweetener for 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram) of body-weight. Usually sugar alcohols can cause discomfort because your body does not have the enzymes to break them down, leaving the bacteria in the large intestine to excrete it. With erythritol, it only gets to the small intestine and is eventually excreted mostly in urine. That said, some studies have shown there to be slight stomach discomfort when consumed in large quantities.
According to some recent studies, erythritol does not change blood sugar or insulin in healthy individuals. It has also been shown to not feed bacteria in the mouth, so is slowly becoming a good alternative to sugar for lack of cavities and tooth decay alone.
Be cautious as to the source of your erythritol. You want to look for organic, non-GMO, non-corn based varieties to ensure you are getting the best type of product if you are choosing to use it.
Erythritol has been known to have a slight cooling aftertaste but when combined with other sweeteners (especially stevia) it is not very noticeable.
Xylitol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol that is usually found in fruits and vegetables. It is not very nutrient dense (like stevia), and is relative low in glycemic index so it does not dramatically affect blood sugar levels. Many people enjoy this sweetener because it is very close to the sweetness of sugar and can easily be substituted.
Stomach discomfort is one of the biggest complaints from xylitol use and consumption greater than 65 grams a day can cause diarrhea.
BE AWARE: Xylitol is extremely toxic to dogs and can be lethal in just small doses. If you have animals and you are using this, be extremely careful to keep it out of reach.
Maltitiol is very commonly used in sugar free products as it is very similar to sugar. It cooks and tastes very much like the real thing, and is only half the calories of actual sugar. The downfall of this is that it has quite a large glycemic index – meaning it spikes blood sugars.
Due to the current food labelling laws many products are allowed to calculate these out of the net carbohydrate count resulting in and many people secretly consuming hidden carbs. This one is best to avoid.
Many also complain of the laxative effects maltitol has. It is commonly associated with stomach issues including bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.
Artificial or synthetic sweeteners are man-made, chemical creations that, in my opinion, are not fir for consumption.
The most commonly used brand of this product is Splenda (which is paired with other high GI sweeteners), and was extremely rampant in the low-carb communities in the early 2000’s. Definitely avoid using any forms of this sweetener.
Aspartame is probably the most controversial sweetener of all. It has been behind many stories of multiple sclerosis, systemic lupus, methanol toxicity, and blindness among many other things. Even though this is one of the most thoroughly studied sweeteners and there is a plethora of contradictory information, it is be best to stay away from this one as there are better alternatives.
First showcasing over 150 years ago, this synthetic sweeter is one of the oldest around. This is not very commonly found or used anymore, as the popularity for saccharin has dwindles. It is still in the top 3 artificial sweeteners, which is why it is included, but usage is losing popularity (thank goodness!!!).
In the 1970’s, all saccharin products had to place a warning label that it may induce cancer in man or animals. This was then removed during 2000, when the animal based testing could no longer ethically be done on humans.
If you are going to choose a low carbohydrate sweetener, stick to those that are more naturally occurring or sourced from natural, whole food products. Reflect on why you may need some added sweetness in your life (and yes, sometimes a sweet treat or desert is definitely okay), make the best choice possible for you, indulge and enjoy.