Aside from fear around giving up bread on a ketogenic diet, the next most common concern for people surrounds the existence and attainability of tasty and healthy, keto-friendly, sugar alternatives.
The excellent news is that there are many natural, sugar alternatives on the market with quality ingredients that won’t spike blood sugar—and don't worry, we're going to share all the intel on which sugar-free sweeteners are so good they could fool you in recipes because they taste so much like sugar.
The array of sugar-free sweeteners at our disposal locally or online make it much easier to transition to the ketogenic diet, satisfy a sweet tooth, and still keep glycogen levels low enough to achieve nutritional ketosis.
What is a Ketogenic Sweetener?
The short answer is any form of sugar alternative that doesn’t spike glucose or produces an unwanted insulin surge when eaten. We’ll cover a host of suitable sweeteners available for those eating a ketogenic diet in detail later.
Which keto-friendly sweetener to use will come down to a preference in taste and your intended application (e.g., making icing vs. sweetening your coffee, etc.).
Again, many sugar-free alternatives make the transition to the ketogenic lifestyle a breeze. Rest assured, there's no need to fret over eliminating sweets on keto.
And no worries, you’ll be a pro by the time we’re done detailing our favorite keto-friendly sweeteners below.
First, though, a few words about the adverse effects of sugar and why limiting it in our diets is key to living a healthier lifestyle.
The Problem with Sugar
Despite being encouraged to eat a low-fat diet by the USDA and the food industry for decades, it's the quality fat that supports health.
Alternatively, low-carb diets that restrict fat generally contain a lot more sugar and artificial sweeteners to compensate for the absence of satiating fat.
Essentially, sugar is the culprit that's been derailing most of our health efforts this entire time, not fat, and we'd be well served to stop blaming quality fats for the damage that sugar is doing to our health.
Sugar causes many metabolic issues. In addition to the disorders that occur when we cannot process glucose—mainly insulin resistance and diabetes—excess insulin in our bloodstream halts fat loss; as opposed to supporting fat loss or muscle gain, insulin's primary function is to inform the body to store fat.
Even if you consider yourself someone who's mindful of nutritional labels, trust me, monitoring sugar and sugar alcohols is the most challenging task of all because they are in just about everything from ketchup to coffee creamers.
The challenge for those living a ketogenic lifestyle is that the presence of either ingredient is sometimes not fully disclosed on nutritional labels; and fundamentally, reducing sugar and simple carbohydrate intake when on a ketogenic diet is essential as it is the only way to achieve the highly-beneficial state of nutritional ketosis.
What Kinds of Ketogenic Sweetener Can I Eat?
Now onto the fun part, let’s take a deep dive into the sea of delicious sugar-free sweeteners we can enjoy on the ketogenic diet:
Stevia, also known as stevia glycerite, is an herb that can be 200-300 times sweeter than sugar! Per the USDA, stevia is known as a non-nutritive sweetener as it contains no calories, vitamins, or nutrients.
The popularity of this sweet leaf has risen in recent years, and its appropriateness for those following a low-carb, ketogenic diet has been confirmed recently by The World Health Organization (WHO), as it disclosed that their research found no adverse effects related to stevia consumption (1).
Some brands of stevia have a bitter aftertaste that tends to steer folks clear of the sugar substitute, but SweetLeaf and NuNaturals are two options on the market that offer sugar-free sweetness without the aftertaste.
It may take some trial and error to find which brand of stevia you prefer, but those noted are a great place to start.
Also, it's worth mentioning that if you find stevia doesn’t entirely agree with you, and you experience an adverse reaction when you use it, you may be allergic to ragweed.
Stevia falls within the ragweed family, and its pollen may cause some sensitivity. If you experience a reaction, a quality monk fruit product may be a better option for you.
Please note, not all stevia is created equal, and it is vital to keep a close eye on ingredients to avoid some harmful items often found in artificial sweeteners (e.g., Stevia in the Raw), such as dextrose, maltodextrin or even, wait for it, sugar!
We’ll touch on more detail about sugar-free alternatives to avoid below, but for now more on the arsenal of keto-friendly sweeteners you can enjoy without worrying about compromising ketosis.
Erythritol, used in sweeteners like Swerve, is a pantry staple for many on the ketogenic diet. This sugar-free sweetener occurs naturally in vegetables, fruits, and fermented foods and is positioned well on the glycemic index, with a GI score between 0 and 0.2 calories per gram—and it does not impact blood sugar.
Medical research has shown that it is safe to consume erythritol in the amount of 1 gram per kilogram of body weight, but consuming it in more substantial amounts may cause stomach discomfort so use this sweetener in moderation until you determine your threshold.
We commonly use erythritol on a low-carb, ketogenic diet and non-GMO offerings like those made by Sukrin, Lakanto (made with erythritol and Luo Han Guo fruit, monk fruit), and Swerve, as we mentioned, are all excellent erythritol-based sweeteners that will help you maintain ketosis without having to deprive your sweet tooth.
It’s important to note that erythritol is about 70 percent as sweet as sugar and you will need to adjust the quantities used to ensure a natural and desired level of sweetness in food and drinks.
Erythritol is an ideal sweetener for those on the ketogenic diet and one we particularly recommend to those embarking on keto, to help ease the transition into ketosis.
Monk Fruit Sweetener (Lo Han / Luo Han)
Monk fruit is an excellent sugar-free sweetener that is perfect for people with diabetes and those following a low-carb diet because it does not affect blood sugar and it tastes enough like sugar to fool your family if swapped in, even the picky little eaters in your household.
Also referred to as the longevity fruit, monk fruit is about 300 times as sweet as sugar and is native to China and northern Thailand where it has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine to treat obesity issues.
The Lakanto sweetener is one that’s newer to the market and one that has become a go-to for many because its taste is virtually indistinguishable from sugar and it doesn’t have the cooling effect that some people complain about with other sugar-free sweeteners.
Some of the recent popularity of monk fruit is likely attributed to it being as sweet as stevia without the bitter aftertaste that most dislike, which can cause some people to avoid stevia products altogether.
Although monk fruit on its own is appropriate on keto, it is still essential to check each brand's ingredients to ensure that you aren’t also consuming unhealthy fillers like dextrose, maltodextrin, and other additives.
The shorter a sweetener's ingredient list is, the better. An ideal monk fruit sweetener should only contain monk fruit and maybe a sweetening alternative like inulin, which does include some calories but is still fine in moderation.
Stick to more pure monk fruit options like those sold by Lakanto, Kal Monk Fruit Powder (primarily monk fruit), Swanson Lo Han Sweetener (mainly inulin-based) or NuNaturals Lo Han Supreme (monk fruit, vegetable glycerine, alcohol, and water) to avoid the unwanted additives found in some monk-based sweeteners.
A word of caution. You may want to pass on monk fruit sweeteners like that sold by Nectresse as the product’s ingredients are very vague on their website, and that is disconcerting.
Also, a little extra digging revealed that Nectresse contains sugar and molasses in addition to erythritol and monk fruit. It’s also processed at the same factory as the artificial sweetener Splenda, an absolute no-no on the ketogenic diet.
Similar to erythritol, xylitol is present in the fibers of various fruits and vegetables, with most commercial xylitol being derived from birch wood or corn. Unlike some of the other noted sugar substitutes, this is a different type of sweetener, as a sugar alcohol (polyol).
Xylitol is a great sugar-free option on keto as it tastes a lot like sugar with fewer calories, but it is important to note that consuming too much of the product can produce a laxative effect which could prove to be problematic unless you work—and do just about everything else—from home.
Again, be moderate when using xylitol because having the runs isn’t fun for anyone. Even doses between 40-50 grams a day may cause diarrhea and general abdominal discomfort.
Conversely, xylitol is said to provide bone support, fortify dental health, and help to prevent osteoporosis.
With a GI load of 13 and three calories per gram, the sugar substitute is about 1.5 times sweeter than sugar so you can opt for a scant 1:1 ratio in recipes.
It’s worth reiterating that it’s best to use xylitol in moderation to avoid adverse effects of the sweetener, including digestive problems and even possible insulin spikes!
Also, the sweetener is known to be toxic to dogs so be sure to keep the product out of reach to safeguard your fur babies (2).
How Many Carbs Do Sugar Alcohols Have?
The impact of sugar alcohols remains a hot-button topic in the keto community. The dilemma is how many carbs do sugar alcohols have and how could this impact nutritional ketosis?
Sorbitol, maltitol, lactitol, and, of course, xylitol are all sugar alcohols that can spike blood sugar levels when consumed in excess.
Before we get into the carb load of sugar alcohols though, it’s important to define what they are. Then we’ll cover how they behave in the body when consumed, along with what all that means for you, and your efforts to achieve or maintain metabolic ketosis.
Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that the human body does not thoroughly absorb, the emphasis being on "thoroughly."
Depending on which sugar alcohol is consumed, the impact they have on the body can vary from one sugar alcohol to another.
Even more confusing still, their effect on glucose levels can also differ from person to person. It’s best to track all carbs, as well as sugar alcohols, on keto and maybe stick to erythritol or stevia when starting keto, or if you experience a fat-loss stall.
Sugar alcohols are a unique type of carbohydrate, like a hybrid between an alcohol molecule and a sugar molecule which makes a lot of sense, given its name.
Sugar alcohols can mimic the taste of sugar, but they can behave very differently once they hit the gut as they are not easily broken down in the small intestine.
Because the body cannot efficiently process sugar alcohols, they ferment in the bowel and can wreak havoc—causing bloating, gas and general abdominal discomfort.
Although sugar alcohols aren’t said to cause harmful health effects like cancer, as is asserted to be the case with certain artificial sweeteners like Splenda, they certainly can cause surges in glucose, and even migraines.
This is essential to note because they are a product found in most low-carb desserts, meal replacement bars, or other packaged and processed foods.
Interestingly enough, sugar alcohols are often omitted from nutritional labels, which begs the question: is there something that the food companies don’t want us to know about sugar alcohols, especially how they can single-handedly kick you out of ketosis, and quickly?
The landscape of “low-carb” and “sugar-free” foods harbor a dirty little secret, almost all of them contain some level of carbs and sugar, and they add up quickly, especially if you’re eating commercially packaged foods without restraint, under the impression that they are “free foods” that don't affect ketosis.
The misconception that sugar alcohols are a free-for-all on the ketogenic diet could take credit for any fat-loss plateaus.
Consuming them in large amounts will undoubtedly spike insulin and advise the body, contrary to your health goals, to store rather than release fat.
Again, each sugar alcohol can impact glucose levels differently. Here’s a bit more on some of the most commonly used sugar alcohols, to help you select which you may want to integrate into your diet:
Maltitol – Glycemic Index of 36
Probably the most ubiquitous of all alcohol sugars in “no-carb” and “low-carb” foods on the market, maltitol pulls off the taste of sugar but still poses some possible health concerns.
Although maltitol provides culinary advantages related to adding moisture to food and helping to reduce calories and carbs in recipes, at about 90% the sweetness of sugar with nearly half of the calories, its impact can still be less than desirable in other ways.
Maltitol is often a go-to for food companies because it tastes like sugar, but with fewer carbs and calories, and without the aftertaste that some dislike in other sugar substitutes.
Also, like other sugar alcohols, maltitol will not contribute to cavities, and this is part of why it is often used in gum, mouthwash, and toothpaste.
Although it’s technically suitable for those with diabetes or anyone eating a low-carb diet, there are some points to consider when using maltitol.
Sugar alcohols are still carbohydrates and do impact glucose, which can be particularly problematic for those with type 2 diabetes or anyone seeking to maintain ketosis.
Eating maltitol in excess can cause stomach aches and gas, along with having a laxative effect that can cause diarrhea.
Sorbitol – Glycemic Index of 9
This polyol is suitable on a low-carb diet in theory, but it is about half as sweet as sugar and will require more product to produce the desired level of sweetness in recipes.
Sorbitol in stone fruits (e.g., peaches, plums, or cherries, etc.) and is generally used by food manufacturers in sugar-free desserts, cough syrups, mints, and gum.
Unfortunately, the combination of needing to use a lot more sorbitol and the potential to cause gastrointestinal discomfort, especially for those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or an otherwise compromised gut, is problematic.
There are some excellent options available to achieve a better flavor impact than sorbitol.
Remember, using lower amounts of sugar alcohols will reduce the possibility of the gastrointestinal side effects so commonly reported when sugar alcohols are consumed in large quantities.
Erythritol – Glycemic Index of 0
A favorite among those on a ketogenic diet and with good reason, erythritol tastes similar to sugar, and it has zero glycemic impact!
Also, erythritol doesn’t appear to cause the same level of digestive issues associated with its counterparts.
Erythritol is almost non-caloric (0.2 calories per gram) and excellent for anyone looking to lose weight while managing glucose. This sugar alcohol is 60-70% as sweet as sugar, but the taste and absence of side effects set it apart among the other polyols.
The body absorbs erythritol when consumed, unlike insoluble polyols that enter the colon undigested and ferment, which causes digestive distress.
Another note on fermentation, erythritol is a great option to add to gum, toothpaste or other oral products since it cannot be fermented by dental bacteria and therefore won't promote cavities.
Since it’s a sugar alcohol, erythritol can cause digestive issues if overconsumed, but it would take a lot to produce a significant abdominal upset as is the case with maltitol and sorbitol, making erythritol an excellent option on the ketogenic diet.
Xylitol – Glycemic Index of 13
A lot of emerging information highlights the promising nature of xylitol, and we’ve already touched on this polyol above.
As is the case with erythritol, because its benefits warrant additional detail due to its likeness in taste to sucrose and its protective properties as it relates to oral health.
Aside from its similar mouthfeel and behavior when used in recipes in place of sugar, xylitol also has some cool health benefits.
As opposed to other sugar alcohols that are neutral to oral health, xylitol is known to fortify teeth and act as a bone remineralization agent.
Emerging research, albeit based on studies using rats, has also accredited xylitol with having a positive effect on overall bone density (3).
Furthermore, xylitol is touted for its ability to fortify tooth enamel and improve bone mineral density, with more information citing its preventative and remedial benefit concerning osteoporosis.
As is typical with sugar alcohols, consuming xylitol in large amounts may cause intestinal distress.
Try polyol-based sweeteners in moderation at first, while you have access to the bathroom to avoid any ominous belly gurgling and a subsequent, uncontrollable, urge to relieve yourself while out and about running errands.
Also, similar to all sugar alcohols, xylitol can disrupt gut microbiome (r.e., the assortment of bacteria that thrive in our intestines), so we recommend consuming this and other polyols in moderation.
Instead, gravitate toward sugar substitutes like stevia and monk fruit that taste great, have a minimal impact on glucose and no impact on insulin levels or gut health, and present no known digestive issues.
Lastly, another key takeaway with this sugar alcohol, and it’s worth reiterating—don’t feed it to your dog as it’s poisonous to canines.
Additional Sugar Substitutes
Yacon syrup is derived from the yacon plant and is native to Peru where it’s been used for centuries.
In addition to its pleasant molasses-like flavor and appearance, yacon syrup is low on the glycemic index thanks to its inulin content, and it’s an option to consider if looking for a suitable sugar-free alternative with additional health benefits.
Along with its sweet taste, yacon syrup is prebiotic and benefits the gut microbiome to support overall gut health—an element that makes it a wiser option than sugar alcohols which, as mentioned, are known to disrupt the gut microbiome and cause digestive upset when consumed in large amounts.
Note, however, that yacon syrup does contain a small amount of fructose and sucrose.
For those who need to keep a strict eye on glucose levels and insulin, for instance, diabetics or those on a ketogenic diet—this sweetener may not be the best choice.
If you’re keeping carbs super low, use this sweetener in moderation or maybe opt for stevia or monk fruit which have an insignificant impact on glucose and no impact on insulin.
Inulin is a fructan—meaning it's comprised of chains of fructose molecules that are bound in a way that makes it impossible for the small intestine to digest—it's a starchy and fibrous element found in a variety of fruits and vegetables, like sugar beets, bananas, asparagus, and leeks.
Inulin is used in some sugar substitutes because it helps to regulate glucose and is even shown to facilitate weight loss because inulin decreases the body's ability to make certain kinds of fats—particularly visceral fat adiposity (VFA), abdominal fat—and it acts as a natural appetite suppressant, as well.
Inulin is not digested by the body but instead passes into the bowels where bacteria can grow—this is important to note because inulin produces a unique form of bacteria—particularly strains that improve bowel function—that are associated with the promotion of overall digestive health.
In addition to it being an ingredient in some sugar substitutes, inulin is also an ingredient in medicine—a tool used to treat those struggling with constipation, diabetes, and weight loss (4).
The use of inulin-based sweeteners appears to be safe at this time, although the lack of information regarding its safety for use in pregnant women makes these sweeteners an option to avoid during pregnancy or if breastfeeding; it's best, in this case, to err on the side of caution.
Although it’s a lesser-known sugar substitute, tagatose is a low-carb sweetener that’s gaining momentum and interest in the marketplace.
Tagatose is a monosaccharide, a type of sugar that cannot be hydrolyzed by the body or broken down to a simpler sugar, and monosaccharides already are the simplest form of sugar.
Tagatose is similar in taste to sucrose and erythritol and is naturally occurring in cacao, dairy, and fruits—with a minimal impact on glucose.
Also, similar to inulin-based sweeteners, tagatose offers health benefits in addition to imparting sweetness to foods and beverages.
Fortunately, tagatose increases good cholesterol, high-density lipoproteins or HDL, and is particularly beneficial for those who have type 2 diabetes or struggling with weight loss.
There are many sugar-free sweeteners available, so it’s always a bonus when a sweetener provides health benefits, in addition to keeping your sweet tooth at bay while on a low-carb, ketogenic diet.
In addition to acting as a sugar substitute, mannitol is a sugar alcohol as well as a diuretic.
Compared to the glycemic index of sugars—from fructose on the lower end of the index with GI of 19 to maltose at the higher end of the spectrum with a GI of 105, mannitol has a very low GI of two.
A drawback with mannitol is that it has about 40% of the calories of sugar but only provides 50% the sweetness—not an excellent payoff for anyone watching their calories on a low-carb diet.
However, as a nonhygroscopic—an element that does not absorb moisture from the atmosphere—mannitol is an ideal sweetener for making hard candy or coatings for a variety of chocolate confections.
Again, as a cautionary note: it’s important to remember that like all sugar alcohols, mannitol is a type of laxative and is so useful to that end that it is often used in medications for children to remedy constipation.
For this reason, it’s recommended to limit this polyol to less than 20 grams per day.
This low-key, natural sweetener is one I hope more people look into because it has excellent keto macros and provides some fantastic health benefits.
Like tagatose, allulose is a monosaccharide, a simple sugar, but it has no glycemic index or net carb content, and that is because it is not absorbed by the body but is instead excreted because it's not something we can metabolize to use as energy.
Also, unlike some sweeteners that provide a neutral impact on glucose when consumed, allulose can help reduce insulin and blood sugar.
Furthermore, emerging research appears to indicate that the sweetener helps to mitigate oxidative stress and may lower blood lipid levels—which reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease and may reduce the chance of one having a stroke.
Allulose is about 75% as sweet as sugar, so you’ll want to compensate and add about 1.5 times the amount of allulose when replacing sugar in recipes.
Also, using allulose in conjunction with stevia and erythritol will produce the most sugar-like taste in your finished product—have fun playing with all the available keto-friendly sweeteners to see which combination or standalone sweetener is your favorite.
Freeze-Dried Berry Powder
Although it’s not an actual sweetener, the naturally-occurring sugar in berries can add a mild level of sweetness to foods along with some nutritional benefits.
You’ll probably want to opt for a powder made from organic blueberries, because it is so rich in antioxidants, to help ward off disease.
Freeze-dried berry powder, particularly blueberry powder, provides a unique composition of anti-aging properties and phytonutrients like anthocyanin—one of the most potent of all the phytonutrients—that is rare to find in a single food source.
Anthocyanin is a super-nutrient and the substance that gives blueberries their dark blue hue. Also, anthocyanin supports vascular health, improves capillary integrity, stabilizes the body’s collagen tissue, and even improves the structure of veins. Pretty amazing!
But that’s not all; this nutritional rock star also neutralizes free radicals in the body on a cellular level and helps prevent some diseases and imbalances, including heart disease, hemorrhoids, ulcers, cataracts, and glaucoma.
Like yacon syrup, lucuma powder, made from the lucuma fruit, is native to Peru and is also known as “Egg Fruit” or “Gold of the Incas,” as it was a treasured nutritional resource within Incan culture.
The lucuma fruit, and therefore the powder, is a superfood and packed with nutrients that have a variety of health benefits. The powder is abundant in beta-carotene, niacin [B3], iron, and fiber, with it even being linked to the prevention of certain cancers.
Lucuma has a sweet, maple, almost a sweet potato, flavor and is used as a natural sweetener that can certainly work on a ketogenic diet.
Keep an eye out for ingredients when buying lucuma powder to ensure that there aren’t any additives that could negatively augment the otherwise low-glycemic profile of this ancient food.
Dark Chocolate (75% cacao or more)
Although most people on the Standard American Diet are familiar with milk chocolate, or at the deepest, maybe, bittersweet chocolate; many get very uncomfortable when ushered to venture out to sample the darker options along the cacao spectrum.
While chocolate in and of itself, especially dark chocolate with 75% cacao or more, is not sweet, there are options like those made by Lily’s Sweets, sweetened with stevia, that are perfect if you want to have a treat while maintaining metabolic ketosis.
Equally valuable to dark chocolate’s ability to crush a carb craving is its immense nutritional value. Dark chocolate is abundant in several micronutrients such as manganese, copper, magnesium, and iron.
Also, you’ve probably heard that dark chocolate is full of anti-oxidants and that is true.
Dark chocolate contains potent amounts of flavonoids like flavonol, catechin, and polyphenol—and all these antioxidants are known to improve cardiovascular health, skin, and brain function!
If you’re more adventurous, go ahead and try the completely unsweetened variations of dark chocolate with higher concentrations of pure cacao.
The taste of very dark chocolate is strong and bitter, not everyone’s cup of tea, and it will likely take some getting used to.
But trust, the health benefits of dark chocolate are well worth the nose-holding and dramatic faces you’ll probably make at first taste.
Sugar Substitutes to Avoid
It’s important to keep a couple of things in mind when sourcing a sugar-free sweetener because some have sub-par ingredients that can negatively impact health and even cause the body to store excess fat!
An ideal sweetener option when eating a low-carb diet is one free of additives and preferably contains non-GMO, organic ingredients.
As is the case when buying all packaged foods, especially on keto, read labels as you source your sugar-free sweeteners.
Look for the purest options you can find, those without fillers like maltodextrin, dextrose, or polydextrose, which can spike blood sugar and may add unwanted carbs into your diet.
As a jumping-off point, a mix of stevia and erythritol are an excellent base combination because they have a pleasant taste when used together. They’re also naturally occurring, and neither natural sweetener will spike your blood sugar.
Feel free to have fun experimenting with the keto-friendly sugar substitutes out there and see which you prefer.
Again, the great news here is, there are so many natural, keto-friendly sweeteners that you can use and still maintain ketosis.
So thankfully, delicious baked goods and decadent drinks are still entirely in play, and fortunately, sweets are not banished as a proverbial sacrificial lamb on the altar of ketosis; and life is still exceedingly sweet on the ketogenic diet.