A Sweet by any Other Name.
And this doesn’t even cover them all. Sneaky little buggers are the sugar industry. When I first started on keto, and I’m sure I’m not alone, I was flabbergasted by some of the things that contained sugar in one form or another. It seemed like literally everything had sugar. Eight months later, and I still get sticker shock when I finally get around to looking at some labels of things I’ve been eating this whole time, never thinking they were guilty of such atrocity.
We as a society are so used to our foods having some level of sweet in them, that we don’t even realize how much we are taking in. Even more disturbing though, is how companies will sneak sugars into so-called “sugar-free” foods and drinks. This is the main reason we are so adamant about reading not just nutritional labels, but also the ingredients list thoroughly. So many people are unknowingly sabotaging themselves by ingesting foods that are interfering with their progress. This was certainly the case with me. My bacon and sausage patties both contained a form of sugar, as well as the mayo I was using. Now I read everything. If veggies had labels, I’d read them too.
So we know to avoid completely anything on the above picture, which can present a challenge in and of itself. But what about all those funky little non-sugar sweeteners? Recently, due to the popularity of low carbs diets, there has been a flood of alternative sweeteners hitting the shelves. They promise the moon…low calorie, low glycemic index, negligible insulin response…but are they all they’re cracked up to be? Let’s dig deeper.
Note: If you are just starting on keto, I do not advise incorporating replacement sweeteners into your life right off the bat. Adjusting to this lifestyle is difficult enough without confusing your system any further. The best path to keto success is to first detox completely from the sugary world we grew up in. This can take months or longer to truly break the habit. Trying to replicate and replace one sweet thing with another can very easily derail your progress. Sweet craving fixes are meant as an occasional savior when you may have hit a rough patch of life or on a special occasion. They can save you in a pinch but shouldn’t be a crutch. I have personally found that using them too often leads to weight stalls, which can be frustrating and cause one to lose faith in the process.
Most sweeteners can be categorized into three main groups, natural sweeteners, synthetic sweeteners, and sugar alcohols.
Natural sweeteners such as pure stevia and monk fruit, are derived directly from plants and are generally accepted as safe and keto friendly. Both have a glycemic index of zero and do not spike insulin levels at all.
The stevia leaf is native to South America and has been used for over 1500 years by its people as a sweetener and also for medicinal purposes. Because of it’s rising popularity, stevia is now grown in many places throughout the world where conditions are temperate. It is about 300 times sweeter than regular sugar, making it an inexpensive way to provide sweetness to foods. It’s important to be aware of the type of stevia you use, there are a lot of blends that use non-keto sweeteners. Look for pure stevia and always read your labels. Stevia does have a bitter aftertaste which some people find unappealing. I use sweet leaf stevia drops in my coffee, the coffee seems to mask the bitterness.
Monk fruit is predominantly grown in southern China and has also been used as both a sweetener and a medicine for centuries. This plant is more difficult and time-consuming to process, which keeps the price considerably higher than stevia. It is still mainly grown in China. It was first mentioned in the writings of 13th century Chinese monks, hence the name. The fruit is 300-500 times sweeter than regular sugar, a little bit goes a very long way. As with stevia though, most monk fruit sold today is actually a blend, look for pure monk. One blend I do use in my baked goods is Lakanto golden, it’s a blend of monk fruit and erythritol. Pure monkfruit is delicious in herbal tea, just a tiny sprinkle does the job. It doesn’t share the bitterness of stevia, but it does have an earthy flavor. Mixing the two cancels out the undesirable tastes and makes for a great addition to any food or drink.
A few other natural sweeteners out there are allulose, inulin, and tagatose. Allulose is relatively new on the scene and is derived from fermented corn. It’s classified by the FDA as “generally recognized as safe”. It seems to be a decent option, although I’d prefer to wait until more human studies are done before I’m comfortable recommending it. Inulin is derived from chicory and has been used as a sweetener although it is extremely mild. It’s more well-known for its medicinal properties. Tagatose is similar chemically to fructose but the atoms are arranged a bit differently. It has a glycemic index of 3 and is generally subtracted from total carbs. Aside from the usual gastrointestinal upset present with overuse of many sugar substitutes, tagatose doesn’t seem to cause any harmful side effects. But again, there is not enough human research data out yet for me to advise its use on a regular basis.
I don’t know who ever thought these were a good choice as sweeteners but no, no way, like not ever. Keto or not, no one should be ingesting this stuff. Besides the fact that they are unnatural crap cooked up in a lab, the chemical shit storm they brew up can wreak havoc on your digestive system. Aspartame, Saccharin, Acesulfame K, and Sucralose should be avoided completely as they have been linked to numerous serious health concerns and negative side effects.
- Aspartame is by far the worst offender. It’s list of possible side effects include migraines, seizures, nausea, weight gain, insomnia, heart palpitations, and the list goes on and on. Stay away from this stuff all together.
- Coming in a very close second is saccharin. This stuff is almost as bad as aspartame, boasting many of the same disgusting health concerns. I don’t know about you, but anything that goes on and off the dangerous foods list is cause for concern to me. Put this crap in the trash with the aspartame.
- Acesulfame potassium or acesulfame k, is still considered controversial but not quite as malicious as the previous two. There has been some evidence of the sweetener causing cancer in lab rats but both the US and the EU have deemed it as safe for human consumption. However, some studies have been done that show acesulfame K is associated with the disturbance of the gut microbial balance and can attribute to chronic inflammation.
- Sucralose is a sneaky one as its name is similar to sucrose, but it’s far from the same. Sucralose was discovered while trying to make a new insecticide, yummy! Being that this is fairly new to the scene, not too much hard evidence is available about its safety, but it’s not been kind to the lab rats. Sucralose contains chlorine, which is not uncommon in food, but rather the way it’s chemically designed is concerning. In making sucralose, the chlorine binds to carbon forming chlorocarbons which can inject a toxic dose of chlorine directly into the cells of insects and microorganisms. Thanks, but no thanks.
Honestly, there is no need for any living thing to be ingesting any of this stuff. There are far too many better options out there.
There are several types of sugar alcohols available, but they are very notable differences among them. Many Keto-ers, myself included, use a sugar alcohol in our baked goods. I personally prefer erythritol, but xylitol is just as popular. Sugar alcohols are sweet carbohydrates naturally occurring in many fruits, but for commercial use, they need to processed to be usable. They are hybrids of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules but behave like neither. Because they are similar in chemical structure to regular sugar, they are able to engage sweet receptors on the tongue. But unlike sugar, they pass through the digestive system without being broken down and absorbed like sugar, which gives them both their low-calorie count and low glycemic index. Another interesting benefit is that sugar alcohols do not contribute to tooth decay.
Erythritol- Glycemic index(GI) 1, processed by fermenting the glucose in corn starch. Erythritol has a great taste but has a cooling aftertaste similar to menthol. For some people, this is a deal breaker, but I’ve found that I really don’t notice it anymore. It replaces sugar basically 1:1 and works really well in all of my baked goods. It is the only sugar alcohol that can be completely deducted from your total carbs as most of it passes through your digestive tract without being absorbed. You see a lot of recipes calling for Swerve, which is a brand of erythritol mixed with oligosaccharides. As with many sugar alcohols, too much can cause some gastrointestinal discomfort because it’s not properly broken down. Gas, bloating, and a laxative effect have been reported when people first start to use erythritol or if they ingest too much. Like the cooling effect, the digestive issues fade with time. I do have to admit that too much of any sugar alcohol will give me a migraine. Only a very small percentage of people have this reaction, unfortunately, I’m one of them.
Xylitol- GI 12, made predominantly from corn cobs, with a small amount being extracted from birch trees. Both end products are completely identical, and most factories are located in China. Xylitol shares the minty taste with erythritol, but is known to be toxic to pets. Many people with animals prefer not to have it in the house for fear of accidental ingestion. Xylitol is popular option on keto because it’s very similar in taste to sugar but it has a low glycemic index. There is a little controversy over its safety for human consumption in large quantities. There’s just not a lot of research on the product yet. It’s important to note though that it is partially absorbed by the small intestines, so you can only deduct half of it from the total carb count. Xylitol is also pretty much a 1:1 substitute for regular sugar, making it convenient for baking and cooking. Like erythritol, it can cause stomach distress when you first start using it, or in large amounts. I prefer not to use it because I have a dog that has food boundary issues.
There are several other sugar alcohols which are considerably less desirable.
Maltitol- GI 36, made by hydrogenating corn syrup. Maltitol is not keto friendly in that it has a high glycemic index. Most commercially made products labeled “sugar-free” have some maltitol in them because it’s markedly less expensive than other options. Unlike erythritol and xylitol, diabetics have to be cautious when eating products containing maltitol. Even though it’s effects on blood sugar are not as bad as sugar, it will spike insulin levels. Maltitol has been known to cause several digestive issues even in small amounts that include diarrhea, gas, bloating, and cramps. Best to just avoid this stuff all together.
Sorbitol- GI 9, most is made from corn syrup and glucose. sorbitol is about 60% as sweet as sugar and is generally mixed in with other sweeteners. It is very slowly metabolized in the body and has a minimal effect on blood sugar levels. Since is it notably less sweet than sugar, more is needed to achieve the desired taste, racking up calories and carbs. Sorbitol is also guilty of causing the gastro issues common with other sugar alcohols, and is actually used as a laxative in large quantities. I’d pass on this stuff as well.
Rounding out the list are lactitol, glycerol, isomalt, and mannitol. All of these have an effect on blood sugar and are not well digested, in addition to having a significant laxative effect. If you want to spend all day on the crapper, feel free to indulge. Again, I’ll pass.
Dang, this post ended up a lot longer than I expected, thanks for sticking around to the end. There’s a lot to cover on the topic, and I hope I didn’t leave anything out. I feel like this was fairly relevant though and I wanted to be thorough. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to drop a comment below. I do want to leave you with this handy little reference guide that I thought was interesting. The more you know…
You stay classy, internet.