As we’ve learnt the past few weeks, it’s wise to watch your sugar intake– whether for health reasons (diabetes or cellular longevity) or because you are following a ketogenic or low carbohydrate diet. But let’s face it, sometimes it can be challenging for those of us with a sweet tooth. There are many sugar substitutes on the market. For the odd occasion where you do feel like something sweet, knowing which substitute to select is important, specifically because many of these substitutes are sugar alcohols.
As my colleague, Dr Josh Axe notes, sugar alcohols are in fact neither sugar nor alcohol! They are a variant of carbohydrates but most of them provide half to one third less calories than regular sugar sources such as sugar granules, honey or maple syrup. This is because the body cannot fully break down its constituent parts to absorb the calories. There are pro’s and con’s to sugar alcohols which you should be aware of when making your selection of a sugar substitute.
What Are Sugar Alcohols?
Sugar alcohols include sweeteners such as xylitol, erythritol and mannitol and are made in a laboratory. Contrary to what the name indicates, there is no alcohol (ethanol) in sugar alcohols. They can be found naturally in small quantities in goods such as berries, pineapple, olives, asparagus and sweet potatoes. Sugar alcohols have a sweet taste similar to sugar and are mostly non caloric or very low in calories but they do have a small effect on blood glucose levels whereas artificial sweeteners won’t cause a rise in blood sugar.
As discussed in our blog Biohack your Sugar Toxicity, it is important to read the labels of all manufactured food items to be sure you know what you are ingesting. Common foods and drinks that contain sugar alcohols include:
- zero calorie and/or diet sodas and drinks
- sugar-free gums and mints
- sugar free yoghurts
- nut butters
- toothpastes and mouthwashes
- some medications and supplements, like cough syrup, throat lozenges, nasal sprays and some vitamins
Sugar alcohols are found in ‘sugar free’ products- the most common variants are included below:
- Sorbitol — sorbitol is a sugar substitute that contains only 50% of the relative sweetness of sugar. For this reason, it is used in larger amounts to get the same sweet taste and can thus often cause digestive problems- specifically a laxative effect.
- Mannitol – this substitute is even less sweet than sorbitol having only 50% – 70% of the sweetness of normal sugar. Many people who consume this complain of bloating and diarrhea.
- Xylitol – Xylitol is a derivative of xylose which is a type of aldose sugar that the bacteria in our guts, cannot digest. For human consumption, it is normally produced in a laboratory but it does occur naturally in the bark of the birch tree. It has about 10 calories per teaspoon (comparative to 16 calories per teaspoon for sugar) so it is not the best option from a caloric intake perspective.
- Erythritol – this is the most popular sweetener used in sugar free foods as it has no calories and zero carbs and is the ‘sweetest’ option as it contains 60% – 80% of the sweetness of regular sugar.
Low Glycemic Index (GI) Score
Following consumption of sugar alcohols, they require little or no release of insulin by the body. They are low in carbs and are converted to glucose more slowly than regular sugar. It is safe for consumption by diabetics as the low GI means it does not spike the blood sugar.
It is important however to always be mindful of what food item the sugar alcohol is used in as the food itself may still be high in carbohydrates and other artificial additives which in and of itself, is not healthy. In addition, ‘sugar free’ foods often trick our minds into believing it is a ‘free food’ which is a trap that can lead to over consumption of carbohydrates and ingestion of additives.
Keto-Friendly/Low-Carb Way to Sweeten Recipes
As a treat, sugar replacements are great for carbohydrate-controlled eating plans, including the keto diet. In addition to adding taste, they can add texture and bulk to a recipe as well as moisture which assists to avoid burning or drying out of baked keto treats. Some people do report feeling fuller with sugar alcohols so this could also assist to control your appetite and cravings for sweets temporarily.
Better than sugar for your health
Because they aren’t metabolised and converted to acids by bacteria in the mouth the same way that sugar is, sugar alcohols are believed to be healthier for your gums and teeth as it does not impact tooth decay in the same way.
That said, whilst it is better than sugar, we still need to be mindful that if we are striving towards a primal, whole food and ‘as-close-to-source-as-possible’ diet, then sugar alcohols are still laboratory, man-made additives.
Risks and Side Effects
Sugar alcohols are laboratory made and so are not natural, primal sweeteners.
They can be derived from GMO-based substances such as GMO corn starch/ syrup.
As they are not natural, they can be hard to digest as they pass through the small intestine and are partially fermented by the bacteria in the large intestine where they can linger causing gas, bloating and discomfort.
These side effects are intensified if consumed on an empty stomach.
Due to the relative sweetness indicator being lower than sugar, larger volumes are required to achieve the same sweetness effect and these volumes can intensify gut discomfort leading to diarrhea (to avoid these symptoms, the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics advises against consuming more than 50 grams/day of sorbitol or more than 20 grams of mannitol per day)
The more natural sweetening route
If you support ancestral principles and are looking for a more natural sugar alternative, 2 of the best options to consider include Stevia and Monk Fruit. Both are derived from plant sources and have zero carbohydrates with a zero calorie count.
Stevia is a ground, white, powdery substance (sometimes it does come in liquid form) which originates from the rebaudiana plant. Unlike regular sugar, human and animal studies have shown that stevia can sometimes lower blood sugar levels.
Stevia is much much sweeter than sugar so only a small amount is required. For example substitute 1 cup (200g) of sugar for 1 teaspoon (5ml) of stevia in baking.
Monk fruit is a natural , zero carb, zero calorie sweetener derived from the monk fruit which is a native plant to Southern China. It contains natural sugars called mogrosides (antioxidants) which account for much of the sweetness. Depending on the volume of mogrosides, monk fruit can be between 100 – 250 times sweeter than regular sugar.
It is important to note that manufacturers sometimes mix monk fruit sweeteners with other sweeteners such as molasses or fruit juices which can increase the carb content of an food item so look out for this on ingredient labels.
Monk fruit sweetener can be used as a replacement anywhere that normal sugar would be used. The substitution volumes depend on your taste as some recipes call for equal replacement of sugar volumes to monk fruit but we would recommend halving these volumes and working upwards to taste.