Questions about keto sweeteners or low carb sweeteners in general are among the most common on the Low Carb Zen Facebook page. It’s not hard to understand why. There are approximately 3.2 kajillion sweetener options, with more popping up all the time.
Some low carb sweeteners are readily available and some are hard to find. Some are reasonably priced and some are insanely pricey. Worse yet, making the wrong choices for you could potentially stall out your low carb plan and undo some of the good work you’re doing the rest of the time. So it makes good sense to be informed.
The choice of low carb sweeteners (or keto sweeteners, if you’re all about the macros) is going to personal. Taste is subjective and individual guidelines and goals vary. So pay attention to what works with your body and as always, let your own preferences and priorities guide you. To help you make informed choices, below are some of the most common low carb sweeteners, along with tips on how to indulge your sweet tooth without derailing your diet plan!
If you don’t mind an artificial sweetener, sucralose is going to be among the least expensive and easiest to find. However, be aware that the powdered form (usually in big, yellow bags) has 24 grams of carbs per cup due to the maltodextrose or maltodextrin added for bulk, making it closer to a cup-for-cup replacement for sugar.
Before you tell me that’s impossible, check out the serving size on those bags. The labeling guidelines allow manufacturers to do some math voodoo with those fractions of a carb and choose small serving sizes, making it appear as if it’s a carb-free food. Don’t be fooled!
For the packets of Splenda/sucralose, a different filler is used. Count those as about 1/2 carb each.
Consider the liquid form of sucralose instead, which is very concentrated and truly zero carb. I get mine in a large bottle because it’s cheaper that way, and pour into eyedropper bottles for easy use. A couple of drops is enough to sweeten a cup of coffee.
LC baking tip: Sucralose is slightly less sweet after baking than before, and can create an “off” taste if used as the primary sweetener with chocolate.
Stevia is inexpensive and easy to find. It is a natural (albeit very refined/processed) sweetener, made from the leaves of the Stevia plant.
Be aware, though: bagged stevia will usually have the same 24 carbs per cup as bagged sucralose since most companies use the same bulking agents (and the same small serving sizes for nutritional labeling). Not to rain on anyone’s parade here, but it’s better to know.
Stevia’s sweetness and taste also vary tremendously from brand to brand, with some brands being sweeter and some having a much more prominent aftertaste. You can’t tell until you try one what that particular brand is like. So take note of what type you are buying, as they are far from all the same. I personally use Sweetleaf Drops or Nu-Naturals Concentrated Powder.
LC baking tip: Stevia becomes extremely bitter in higher concentrations. Use small amounts and consider mixing with another sweetener for better overall results with a less noticeable aftertaste.
Also seen by the name Luo Han Guo, monk fruit is a highly concentrated sweetener from a fruit native to China. As you’d expect, it is natural. This sweetener is not known to significantly impact blood sugar and is well-tolerated by most. Like stevia, it doesn’t taste the same as sugar, so you may notice an aftertaste or bitterness if used in higher concentrations. I prefer to use this in blends instead of on its own for these reasons.
Many pre-made products (e.g. sugar-free candy, low carb bars, baked goods, etc.) are sweetened with sugar alcohols. On the nutritional labels, the manufacturers subtract all the grams of sugar alcohol from the total carbs, claiming they don’t have any impact.
In actuality, various sugar alcohols vary in terms of how they impact blood sugar, with some of the carbs being metabolized and some not. So as a general rule of thumb, I subtract 1/2 of the sugar alcohols from the carb count.
Many sugar alcohols are also known for causing stomach upset, along with cramping, digestive, and bathroom issues. You want to be very careful with portion control here or there will be unpleasant consequences, says the voice of experience. The exception to this is Erythritol, discussed below.
Erythritol is one of many sugar alcohols, with a chemical makeup similar to sugar and alcohol. Surprise! While the name sounds like some sort of science experiment, erythritol is actually a by-product of fermenting the sugar in fruits and is considered natural.
Erythritol is not known to negatively impact blood sugar and for most people, does not cause stomach and digestive issues many other sugar alcohols do. It’s the only sugar alcohol that I count as zero carbs.
LC baking tip: Erythritol can create a slight “cooling” sensation in the mouth, similar to peppermint. Mixing Erythritol with another sweetener can offset this taste. Mixing with other sweeteners can also help avoid the tendency for erythritol to crystallize when used in higher concentrations.
Xylitol is another sugar alcohol that has fans because it tastes a great deal like sugar and it’s about the same sweetness, so easy to measure. It has a limited impact on blood sugar and is actually known to be good for your teeth! That’s why you’ll often see it in sugarless gum.
Like many of the other sugar alcohols, however, it can cause stomach upset if you eat very much. Individuals can develop a tolerance to this effect over time, though. So if you are not using it regularly, proceed with caution!
Pet Parent tip: Even small amounts of xylitol can be highly toxic to dogs and cats because of differences in their physiology. Please be very careful around your furry friends if you use this sweetener! I don’t use it for this reason.
If you buy products that say “sugar-free,” there’s a very good chance they contain maltitol. Maltitol tastes very much like sugar and behaves just like sugar in baking, which accounts for its popularity in making sugar-free products. You often cannot tell the difference between maltitol and sugar in the end products.
Sounds great? Well, not exactly. When I first started low carb, I bought a brownie mix with maltitol. I was so jazzed! They tasted amazing, just like “real brownies.” In fact, they tasted enough like the real thing that I had three humongous brownies. It had been a while and it was “legal,” you know?
But shortly after, the not-so-fun part started. Maltitol is one of the worst sugar alcohols for causing stomach issues: gas, bloating, diarrhea and horrendous abdominal cramps. The next few hours left me cursing maltitol as the devil and swearing never to repeat my mistake. And since then, I haven’t.
Unfortunately, maltitol also has a high glycemic index, meaning it will cause blood sugar spikes. While it’s technically not sugar, it’s not really much if any better for you than actual sugar. I’d advise steering clear of this one completely.
Let me apologize to my Paleo folks right now, because I know I’m probably about to step on some Paleo toes here. But it’s important to remember natural does not equal low carb or–for most of us–a healthy choice.
Many products are marketed as healthier alternatives to cane sugar. And while some of these sweeteners do retain some nutritive value through processing making them more attractive, their overall impact on blood sugar or general health makes them a poor choice for most of us to use regularly.
Honey may be natural, but it IS sugar made by bees, coming in at about 17 carbs per tablespoon. Coconut palm sugar is less processed than white sugar, but at the end of the day, it is still sugar. Maple syrup? Sugar made by trees is unquestionably tasty and delicious, but it’s still sugar, folks.
Noticing a trend here?
Agave Nectar is particularly tricky. You’ll see claims that it is low on the Glycemic Index (GI), meaning it shouldn’t have a big impact on blood sugar. In reality, it’s metabolized differently so the uptick comes later.
But the main issue with Agave is that it’s very high in fructose–sporting with even higher concentrations than High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). A little fructose as found naturally in fruit, our bodies can handle without issue. But fructose can only be metabolized by the liver and in large amounts, it creates insulin resistance and contributes to numerous health problems.
I do really like the Sukrin Gold brown sugar replacement and still use it, but now suggest people steer clear of any Sukrin brand syrups.
If you do use these sweeteners, please consider them roughly the equivalent of sugar because, in terms of impact on your body, that’s basically what we’re looking at. Sugar in a pretty dress is still sugar.
There was a study a few years back that found a correlation between artificial sweeteners and blood sugar levels. For a while, many click-baity articles touted the idea that just the sweet taste is enough to create the same effect as sugar, so watch out! But that’s not an honest or accurate representation of the study’s findings.
First of all, it’s important to recognize this was a single, and small study. It was primarily conducted on mice, followed up by a few hundred people. Blood sugar changes in the study did not occur the same way or timetable it would normally occur for someone consuming sugar. What the scientists found was actually a difference in the blood sugar levels of some mice and people who use artificial sweeteners over time; they deemed differences in gut microbes responsible for the changes. Many factors, including genetics, overall health and biological sex impact gut microbes.
But the killer headlines come from the part of the study involving people who didn’t normally use sweeteners: there were just seven participants given saccharine for a week. They found an overall increase in blood sugar levels for four of them. With such a tiny sample, correlations are statistically meaningless. So no one can validly extrapolate those findings to the population at large.
That having been said, the study does offer some backing for the possibility that some people are especially sensitive to sweeteners. And no matter what, there are very individual differences to how our bodies respond to different foods. So like everything else here, you have to make informed decisions based on your personal experience.
Maybe you’ve seen a mix of low carb sweeteners in recipes. It seems odd to see two or three different sweeteners recommended for a single recipe, doesn’t it? But there is a reason (that’s not about selling you more sweeteners).
Pro tip: Properties of one sweetener can help balance out the aftertaste or quirks of another, creating a synergistic effect where the mix performs better than an individual choice.
Plus, each sweetener behaves differently. Some will crystallize or caramelize, whereas others won’t. Some will misbehave in higher concentrations. Some have an aftertaste and some don’t. So with all these variables, you’ll find blends often work better and just taste better than individual sweeteners. It’s not a bad idea to have a few options in your cupboard so you can mix and match as needed.
LC baking tip: You can often sub sweeteners in recipes to just use what you have. For some recipes, though, the texture may be different if you use different sweeteners than the author recommends.
I personally favor Erythritol-based blends for most baking. I also use liquid sucralose for coffee or to blend with the erythritol mix if I want extra sweetness.
Erythritol and monk fruit is my current go-to option, or Swerve (erythritol blended with oligosaccharides, a sweetener derived from fruit). I may kick up the sweetness in a recipe by adding a little liquid sucralose, or maybe a few stevia drops or a concentrated stevia powder.
While my brand preferences do change, this is the basic arsenal of sweeteners I’ve been using for the last few years. It’s worked well for me! But I want to know about your choices.
What sweeteners do you use (and why did you choose them)?
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