Bittersweet journey to find the perfect sweetener
For anyone following the wildly popular ketogenic diet, finding a ketogenic sweetener that is healthy, low-carb, natural, and low-glycemic is the equivalent of a culinary treasure trove. When deciding between different low-carb sweeteners, there are four main questions you should be asking:
- Is it natural or artificial?
- Is it safe, and what are any potential side effects?
- What impact does it have on blood sugar and/or ketone levels?
- And most importantly, does it taste good?
Using something natural is crucial, as we know that artificial sweeteners such as Splenda are not the healthiest option. The four most popular and widely available low-carb, ketogenic sweeteners on the market that are all-natural are:
- Monk Fruit
Top 4 Ketogenic Sweeteners
Stevia is one of the most popular natural, no-carb, sweet-tasting, calorie-free sweeteners on the market today. Stevia is the common name for the extract stevioside from the leaves of a shrub known as Stevia rebaudiana Bertoni.
Practical Things To Know About Stevia:
- No impact on blood sugar: Stevia cannot be metabolized by the body, so it has no impact on blood sugar levels — its Glycemic Index (GI) is 0.
- 300 times sweeter than sugar: Stevia’s sweetening power is up to 300 times sweeter than that of regular sugar (sucrose) by weight, which is why often just a few drops of stevia adds enough sweetness.
- Avoid the bitter taste by looking for the Reb D form of stevia: The structure of glycoside molecules plays a key role in determining the sweetness or bitterness of Stevia. The steviol glycoside rebaudioside D, or Reb D form of Stevia, is around five times sweeter and two-thirds less bitter than dulcoside A (Reb A). Reb D is the formulation that is used by several name brand stevia producers, such as in Splenda Naturals. If you have been noticing any bitterness in products you’ve purchased that use stevia, it may be because they are using the cheaper, and more bitter, Reb A form of the molecule.
- Can be used for baking: Stevia is heat stable, so it can be effectively incorporated into baked goods. Because of its sweetness-density, stevia is usually combined with other sweeteners, such as erythritol, to provide the required “bulk” needed for use in cooking/baking. This combination also serves to boost its overall flavor, a discovery known as “Sweetener Synergy”.
- No reported side effects: There are no reported side effects of stevia — including allergic reactions — and this sweetener is not known to be contraindicated for any medical conditions. Stevia is globally approved as safe for use by leading medical, scientific and regulatory authorities.
Health Benefits Of Stevia:
- Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, & antimicrobial activity: The high levels of sweetening compounds in stevia extracts (i.e. stevioside, Reb A through F, and dulcoside) are thought to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial activity, inhibiting the growth of certain bacteria and other infectious organisms.
- Can help lower blood sugar: Stevia and its related compounds have properties that lower blood sugar levels following meals in people with Type 2 diabetes. These same compounds have also been shown to lower blood pressure in those diagnosed with elevated levels (no effect seen in those with both normal blood sugar/blood pressure levels).
- Anti-tumor and cancer fighting properties: Stevia extracts have been shown to exhibit anti-tumor and cancer-fighting properties in research studies using animal models.
Cons Of Using Stevia Ketogenic Sweeteners:
- Stevia might be bitter or unpleasant tasting for some, especially if they are new to the sweetener. However, by choosing a variety that contains Reb D, the bitterness should be much less detectable.
- Even when using the less bitter Reb D form of Stevia, you can still notice some bitterness if you use too much of it — so find your own personal sweetspot for how much stevia you use.
Although some find the taste of stevia to be unpleasant at first, many people grow accustomed to the taste and grow to like it.
Note: Do be careful to look at the labels when purchasing stevia or a stevia blend. Some stevia blends on the market even combine stevia with regular cane sugar, which defeats the purpose of using a low-glycemic, low-carb sweetener in the first place.
Erythritol is one of a number of naturally-occurring sugar alcohols, or polyols, each with varying levels of sweetness, calorie values, and ranges of impact on blood sugar levels.
Practical Things To Know About Erythritol:
- No impact on blood sugar: Erythritol has no impact on blood sugar or insulin levels. The molecular structure of erythritol allows the body to absorb erythritol but not metabolize or break it down. Amongst the sugar alcohols, erythritol also provides the lowest Glycemic Index (GI of 0-1) and it contains less than 0.20 calories per gram, compared with 4 calories per gram in regular sugar (sucrose).
- 60-80 percent of the sweetness of sugar
- Improved digestibility compared to other sugar alcohols: Erythritol is the easiest sugar alcohol for our body to digest, with up to 90 percent of it absorbed by the small intestine before it can enter our large intestine (colon) and cause digestive upset. Sorbitol and maltitol, on the other hand, even in small doses, have been found to be much harsher on the stomach and digestive system.
- Can be used for baking: Like stevia, erythritol is heat stable and can be used for baking. Erythritol is widely used as a bulk sweetener in low-calorie foods and provides added sweetness, texture, and bulk when used in combination with other zero-calorie natural sweeteners.
Health Benefits Of Erythritol:
Perhaps there are no pros to choosing erythritol. Other than providing a carb-free, natural alternative to sugar, erythritol does not appear (at present) to have any direct therapeutic health benefits. It is, however, one of the must gut-friendly sugar alcohols out there.
Cons Of Using Erythritol Ketogenic Sweeteners:
- Symptoms of gastrointestinal distress, especially after consuming foods with erythritol in higher quantities.
- A “cooling taste” may be experienced after eating foods containing erythritol.
Also known as Luo Han Guo, monk fruit is a member of the gourd family and was originally cultivated nearly 800 years ago by Buddhist monks (hence its name) in Southern China. Like stevia, monk fruit has been used in traditional herbal medicine for centuries. It is only recently that monk fruit has been transformed from a medicinal fruit into a healthy sweetener and an amazing ketogenic sweetener option.
Practical Things To Know About Monk Fruit:
- No impact on blood sugar: Monk fruit extract, like stevia, contains no calories or carbohydrates (meaning no sugar!), and has no impact on blood sugar levels (GI of 0).
- 150-200 times sweeter than sugar: Monk fruit extract, derived from the juice of the fruit, is 150-200 times sweeter than regular sugar.
- Fuel for the microbiome: The compounds that give monk fruit its sweetness are called mogrosides. These are absorbed in the lower GI tract, where microbes in our gut use them as a source of energy, boosting our healthy gut flora.
- No bitter aftertaste: Monk fruit extract appears to have a better taste profile (no bitter aftertaste) than its natural low carb sweetener counterpart, stevia.
- Some potential for allergies: Because monk fruit is a member of the gourd family of fruits and vegetables, which includes melons, pumpkins, and squash, any allergies to these foods will increase your risk of a monk fruit allergy.
- Can be used for baking: Like stevia and erythritol, monk fruit is stable at high temperatures and can be used in baking. Because of its highly concentrated sweetness, monk fruit is usually blended with other natural no-calorie sweeteners such as stevia and erythritol (serving as a bulking agent).
Health Benefits Of Monk Fruit:
- Antioxidant activity: The mogroside compounds in monk fruit have been shown to exhibit powerful antioxidant activity, which protect against mitochondrial and DNA damage.
- Anti-Tumor activity: These same mogroside compounds demonstrate anti-tumor activity by promoting increased levels of a tumor-suppressing gene.
- Especially beneficial to individuals with Type 2 Diabetes: Mogroside can especially be of potential benefit to individuals with Type 2 diabetes by stimulating pancreatic insulin secretion.
- Helps limit the growth of fat cells: Mogrul, a major circulating form of mogroside in the blood, limits the growth of fat cells and restricts fat production by inhibiting enzymes which can convert stem cells to fat cells.
Cons Of Using Monk Fruit Ketogenic Sweeteners:
- High in cost: Purchased in its pure form (as a single ingredient), monk fruit is very expensive.
This one is the “newest ketogenic sweeteners on the block” and offers yet another reason to kick your sugar habit to the curb. Allulose, also known as D-psicose or D-allulose, has the same chemical formula as fructose, but contains a different structure. This structural anomaly prevents our body from metabolizing allulose. Our small intestine absorbs it and excretes it primarily through the urine without significant metabolism.
Practical Things To Know About Allulose:
- Closest taste profile to real sugar: Due to its is close proximity to fructose, allulose has the same taste profile as regular sugar.
- No impact on blood sugar: Because allulose is not significantly metabolized by our body, it does not impact blood sugar or insulin levels. In fact, during the process of obtaining FDA approval, researchers found that allulose can actually blunt the glycemic (blood sugar) response of other carbohydrates when consumed together at the same meal.
- 70 percent of the sweetness of sugar: Allulose contains only a fraction of the calories of regular sugar (0.2 calories per gram vs 4 calories per gram) with 70 percent of its sweetness.
- Can be used for baking: Allulose is heat stable and has the texture of regular sugar, making it ideal for baking. Allulose also works synergistically in combination with other concentrated natural sweeteners, such as stevia and monk fruit. Together, the sweetener blend results in a more potent level of sweetness than that of the individual sweeteners — again, something that we refer to as “Sweetener Synergy”.
- No reported side effects: There have been no reported side effects caused by allulose, but the FDA recommends doses below 35 grams per day (0.5-0.6 g/kg) in order to avoid gastrointestinal discomfort.
Health Benefits Of Allulose:
- Blunts the rise of blood sugar after meals: Allulose, or D-psicose, blunts the rise of blood sugar following a meal in individuals with pre-diabetes — it also has an after-meal blood-sugar lowering effect in non-diabetics as well. These qualities make allulose ideal for both managing and preventing diabetes.
- Can help reduce abdominal fat: A study of a large group of overweight adults demonstrated that allulose was able to significantly reduce their abdominal fat and waist circumference.
- Can help treat fatty liver: Research using animal models shows that dietary supplementation with allulose can positively impact obesity-related fatty liver without exercise therapy or additional dietary intervention.
Cons Of Using Allulose Ketogenic Sweeteners:
- High in cost: Allulose is expensive, but as market competition continues to expand, and as the production of allulose increases through the process of bacterial fermentation, its cost factor should likely improve.
We have come a long way from the days of pink, yellow, and blue packets as the only means to reduce our consumption of sugar and satisfy our sweet tooth. The entry of all-natural, low-carb sweeteners has transformed the sugar substitute landscape and will likely help to phase out, or replace, the use of artificial sweeteners. For anyone on a ketogenic diet, the choices of natural, safe, and taste-appealing low or no-carb sweetener options have never been greater. There is no longer a need to “desert your dessert” — anyone on a ketogenic diet can officially ditch the carbs without compromising taste or health. Deciding which of the above four sweeteners is right for you is a personal one, as both individual health goals and taste buds are unique. Also keep your eye out for more natural, low carb sweetener options likely to be introduced to the commercial market in the coming months (i.e. Brazzein).
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