It's pretty safe to say that all of us in the keto community know to steer clear of sugar, but there’s a bounty of sugar-free sweeteners, both natural and artificial, available on the market now—but which are best to consume when on keto and for overall health?
Today on the Konscious Keto blog, we delve into the ideal sweeteners to use on keto below as well as those to avoid due to their health-related side effects.
What Are Sugar Alcohols?
Sugar alcohols, polyols, are carbohydrates that the human body cannot fully absorb, and each sugar alcohol's impact within the body is different.
Sugar alcohols are a unique type of carbohydrate, a hybrid of an alcohol molecule and a sugar molecule, which makes a lot of sense per their name.
Sugar alcohols can imitate the taste of sugar pretty well, but they can behave very differently once they hit the gut (r.e., the digestive system) because they're not easily broken down in the small intestine where they ferment, causing bloating, gas and general abdominal discomfort.
Common Types of Sugar Alcohols
Xylitol, erythritol, maltitol, and sorbitol, are all popular sugar alcohols and can be found in everything from sugar-free candy to toothpaste.
While some sugar alcohols are indistinguishable from sugar when added to food and drinks, it's wise to limit consumption as they can cause adverse effects like abdominal discomfort.
We recently posted a deep-dive on keto-friendly sweeteners and covered sugar alcohols in greater depth, read more here.
Keto Approved Sugar Alcohols
Glycemic Index (GI) of 0: This sugar alcohol is found in many sugar-free, keto-friendly foods, and is used in popular low-carb sweeteners like Swerve.
Erythritol is almost non-caloric (0.2 calories per gram) and excellent for anyone looking to lose weight while managing glucose. Erythritol is 60-70% as sweet as sugar, but its taste and lack of side effects set it apart from the other polyols.
Since it’s a sugar alcohol, erythritol can cause digestive problems if over-consumed, but it would take a lot to produce a significant abdominal upset as is the case with maltitol and sorbitol, making it an excellent option on the ketogenic diet.
Glycemic Index of 13: A promising sugar alternative and keto-friendly, xylitol tastes a lot like sugar without causing glucose spikes.
Also, an extra benefit with this polyol is its protective properties as it relates to fortifying teeth and bones.
If you’re interested in learning more about the many keto-friendly sweeteners available, check out our comprehensive guide where we share our favorite low-carb sweeteners—there are a bunch of tasty options!
Even though there are some sugar alcohols that we advise to avoid or limit, there are still the options mentioned above that work well on keto, as well as other options like stevia and monk-fruit based sweeteners that let you indulge your sweet tooth on keto without the guilt, or dreaded weight-loss stalls.
Sugar Alcohols to Avoid on Keto
Glycemic Index of 36: Probably the most common of all alcohol sugars in the low-carb, high-fat market, maltitol provides the taste of sugar but also poses some possible health issues.
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, it’s impact can still be less than favorable in other ways.
Keep in mind that sugar alcohols are still carbohydrates and do effect glucose, which can be particularly problematic for those with type 2 diabetes or insulin resistance.
Also, please note that eating maltitol in excess can cause stomach aches, bloating, and gas, and may have you tethered to the toilet with diarrhea—use it in small amounts until you determine your level of tolerance.
Glycemic Index of 9: Although this option is suitable on a low-carb diet, it's only about half as sweet as sugar and will require a lot more product to produce the desired level of sweetness in recipes.
Unfortunately, the combination of needing to use a lot more sorbitol and its likelihood to cause gastrointestinal discomfort, especially for those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or other gut issues, make sorbitol a less favorable option.
Reasons to Avoid Sugar Alcohols
Again, sugar alcohols can cause digestive issues, bloating and abdominal discomfort, as well as weight loss stalls, when consumed in excess. Although sugar alcohols are keto-friendly based on macros, limit consumption to prevent adverse problems.
Sugar alcohols can work well within a low-carb, high-fat protocol, but these low-digestible carbohydrates (LDCs) can lead to sugar cravings if consumed in excess.
Sweeteners that contain sugar alcohols can be helpful, especially for those transitioning from a Standard American Diet diet to a ketogenic diet, but reducing even sugar alternatives is useful over time as it will prevent the side effects experienced when consumed in excess, including increased sugar and carb cravings.
Cutting intake of all sweeteners over time resets your taste buds, and you will need to use less product for the same flavor payoff, in time.
Gut and Digestive Health
Sugar alcohols may disrupt the functioning of the lining of the gut because they arrive intact when they reach the intestines, and the unmetabolized portion begins to rot, creating the perfect environment for undesirable bacteria and pathogens to feed and grow.
An imbalanced intestinal ecosystem, where pathogens and other harmful microbes thrive, compromises the gut lining. Also, such an imbalance causes damage to the critical enterocytes that line the gut wall which can lead to autoimmune disease symptoms.
And, while it is true that sugar alcohols do not feed pathogenic yeasts like Candida albicans the way sugar does, the undesirable fermentation of undigested sugar alcohols has the potential to exacerbate pre-existing, yeast-related issues.
Glycemic Index and Blood Sugar Impact
It's best to stick to erythritol (GI impact of 0) and xylitol (GI impact of 13), in that order of preference, if you choose to incorporate sugar alcohols into your diet.
Although maltitol and sorbitol also have a low-glycemic impact, they produce the most adverse effects when over-consumed.
Sugar alcohols are, of course, permissible on keto, but remember that they are still a form of carbohydrate and can spike glucose levels if consumed in excess, so be moderate.
Sugar Alcohols and Keto Stalls
Sugar is canceled on keto. And while sweeteners containing sugar alcohols are much lower in carbs, the consumption of sweeteners containing sugar alcohols should be limited to avoid glucose spikes and weight-loss stalls.
Focus on reducing sweeteners overall to break the dependency on that flavor profile; sugar replacements are a helpful tool, but independence from needing sweets is ideal and tends to occur naturally as one continues on the ketogenic diet as the taste buds adjust.
Identifying the Problem
If you are experiencing abdominal discomfort, gas and digestive issues, you may be consuming too many sugar alcohols.
Also, sugar alcohols have a diuretic effect so frequent trips to the bathroom after consuming these sweeteners may indicate over-consumption—use these sweeteners, in general, in moderation.
Although it's generally advised to control sugar alcohol consumption to avoid adverse effects (e.g., bloating, diarrhea, etc.), the product is used in foods, gum, toothpaste, and even mouthwash for a reason—slow and partial absorption which prevent them from adding extra calories to your daily macros.
Also, once they are absorbed, they use minimal to no insulin to convert to energy which helps to stabilize blood sugar levels and prevent the spikes and dips commonly experienced when we consume glucose (sugar), a definite benefit.
Try Alternate Sweeteners
We are living in the best time in history to try keto because there are so many options, and that includes a bevy of sugar alternatives apart from those containing sugar alcohols.
Sweeteners made with stevia, and monk fruit is low-glycemic, keto-friendly, and do not cause some of the digestive issues people experience when consuming sugar alcohols.
Consider trying some of the sweeteners we've noted and take a look at our comprehensive guide on keto-friendly sweeteners to find those that you like best, happy foraging!
Lastly, using an exogenous ketone supplement like Keto Activate is super-helpful for times when you cheat a bit, consume more carbs than intended, or overindulge a bit on the sweets—it's our secret weapon to help us keep it keto in the real world!
The ketogenic diet is a protocol that offers many therapeutic and thermogenic benefits to help you look and feel great, all while shedding unwanted body fat.
Luckily, there's no need to deprive yourself of sweet treats to reap the many benefits of nutritional ketosis.
Take some time and experiment with the many keto-friendly sweeteners on the market. You will undoubtedly find your favorites to help you pursue your health goals and tame your sweet tooth, all while keeping it keto!