If you’re on a low carb diet and you can’t give up sweet coffee or desserts, you’re going to need low carb sweeteners. There are plenty of sugar substitutes on the market, but some of them fit better than others into a low carbohydrate diet. In this post we’ll look at the most popular natural and artificial sweeteners so that you can choose the one that will work best for you.
Aspartame is an artificial sweetener that will be one of the ingredients in most diet sodas and diet desserts. Brand names include Nutrasweet and Equal. It is a chemical produced by combining two amino acids or proteins. It breaks down at high temperatures and stops tasting sweet so it does not work for baking.
Some studies have suggested that aspartame is not safe, although it remains approved for food use in most countries. With that plus the fact that you can’t use it for cooking, you’ll probably want to avoid it. There are better choices on the market.
Weirdly, sugar alcohols are neither sugars nor alcohols! They have names ending in -ol, e.g. maltitol, erythritol, xylitol, sorbitol.
Xylitol in particular is well known for not causing tooth decay, unlike sugar – in fact, studies have suggested that it even has a protective effect. It’s therefore used as an ingredient in many chewing gums. You can also buy a granulated version in health food stores. It can be used the same way as sugar, although it has a slightly cooler taste.
Sugar alcohols are technically a form of carbohydrate, although they don’t seem to be absorbed by the body in the same way as other carbohydrates. Most low carb diets advise counting them as having half the carbs of sugar, i.e. 2.2g carbohydrate per teaspoon. This is too high for most people on a low carbohydrate diet, except for very occasional use.
There’s a lot of misunderstanding about agave nectar. Agave nectar is a syrup made from the agave plant, a spiny plant that grows in Mexico. It’s often billed as being good for low glycemic diets because it doesn’t raise the blood sugar as fast as other types of syrup. However, that doesn’t make it low carb. What’s more, it raises your triglycerides. See what Dr. Jonny Bowden says about agave nectar here
Sucralose is better known as Splenda, one of the brand names that it’s marketed under in many countries. Sucralose itself is not a brand name but an artificial sweetener that’s produced in laboratories by modifying sugar molecules.
In its pure form it has a sweetness of 600 times as much as sugar. However, you won’t buy the pure chemical. It comes in different forms.
The granulated version contains bulking agents to make it look and act like sugar, although you’ll notice it weighs a lot less. It’s convenient for recipes because one teaspoon of granulated Splenda has the same sweetness as one teaspoon of sugar. However, the bulking agents contain a small amount of carbohydrate (0.5g per teaspoon). That’s about 10% of the carbs that are in sugar.
You can also get tablets for adding to drinks, which contain other ingredients and may have some carbs – check the label. If you buy Liquid Splenda, it’s just sucralose and water so there are no carbs.
Sucralose is a popular sweetener for many low carb dieters because you can cook with it. Unlike a lot of other artificial sweeteners, it does not lose its sweetness at high temperatures. So you can combine it with low carb flour substitutes like coconut flour or almond flour to bake low carb cookies, cakes and puddings. However, there can still be quite a lot of carbs in your finished baked goods. And it doesn’t act quite like sugar – for example it doesn’t caramelize, and doesn’t work for meringues.
Sucralose is not natural and some people avoid it for that reason. Also, like any artificial sweetener, some studies have shown that it can raise insulin levels, making the body store fat from other foods eaten at the same time.
Stevia rebaudiana is a small herb-like plant that originated in South America. It has very sweet tasting leaves which have been always been used as a sweetener by natives of the countries where it grows.
In the West its acceptance has been slower, although stevia extract has been used as a sweetener in Japan for many years. It is now marketed either as an extracted chemical called Rebaudioside-A or simply as powdered plant leaf.
In the USA the plant leaf is not approved as a food but only as a dietary supplement, so you will find it in health food stores.
Stevia itself has zero calories and zero carbs, and studies have suggested that it can actually have a beneficial effect on insulin, which could be helpful for diabetics and those with metabolic syndrome. It has a slightly different taste from regular sugar, with a little hint of licorice that can take some getting used to, although some people like it right away.
The purified extract is FDA approved as a food additive. It’s used in several brand name sweeteners, including PureVia™ and Truvia™. However, both of these contain other ingredients as well as the stevia.
PureVia contains dextrose, an actual sugar, and has 3 calories per pack. This is a lot less than regular sugar (although you may be surprised to know that table sugar has only 15 calories per teaspoon) but it’s still not ideal for a low carb diet.
Truvia contains erythritol, one of the sugar alcohols discussed above, and while it has no calories, it may be better avoided on a low carb diet.
Stevia leaf is chosen by many low carb dieters who want a natural sweetener. In my view it’s probably the best of the low carb sweeteners that you can buy – but watch out for other ingredients in branded ‘stevia’ sweeteners in the grocery store.
ETA (from the comment section below): Even better IMHO is to avoid sweeteners as much as possible. I’ve seen studies that claim to show that the sweet taste increases insulin production and therefore the laying-down of fat stores even if no sugar is consumed. Plus, it’s easier to stick to a low carb diet if we allow our taste buds to adjust to less sweetness in our food. Vegetables start to taste a lot nicer!