Of the five taste sensations, sweetness is the one we're most addicted to. Our penchant for sweet-tasting stuff is imbedded in our genes, and the urge is hard to fight. You'll definitely notice your sweets addiction when you first go low-carb. Many keto dieters like to wean themselves off their need for sweet goodies by using sugar substitutes. Many of these products contain zero net carbs and have absolutely no impact on blood glucose.
However, not all sugar substitutes are created equal. Some are scientifically-proven to be harmless and even beneficial while others have a questionable impact on human health. As a rule of thumb, we suggest going for natural, non-nutritive sweeteners and skip man-made ones. You'll also need to avoid those high in carbs for obvious reasons on a keto diet.
To help you choose a sugar substitute that's right for you, we made this ultimate keto sweetener guide. Here, you'll learn what sweeteners are, how your body processes them, and give you a list of the 5 best sweeteners out there. We also explain which ones you'll have to skip when going keto. With that out of the way, keep scrolling to make your pick today.
What Are Sweeteners Exactly?
Sweeteners are sugar substitutes that provide a sweet taste without adding extra calories or causing blood sugar spikes. Food companies initially developed them as a cheap sugar alternative. Eventually, their use expanded to the health and dieting industry. You'll also see that sweeteners are a common feature of ketogenic diet plans.
Sweeteners can be either natural or manmade. They are also divided into three distinct groups: natural sweeteners, sugar alcohols, and synthetic (artificial) sweeteners. Examples of popular sweeteners include stevia, monk fruit, erythritol, sucralose, and sugar alcohols. But there are several dozens of other sweeteners on the market.
Most sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar and other high-carb condiments like honey. In fact, some are several hundred times sweeter than sugar. These are called high-intensity sweeteners and you only need to use a tiny amount to achieve a sweet taste. Many sweeteners, however, also have a bitter aftertaste. That's why many manufacturers combine different sweeteners and mix them fillers and additives to balance out the taste and tone-down the sweetness.
Your body processes sweeteners quite differently from sugar, and many of these mechanisms are not well understood. That's the main reason why studies did not come to a definitive conclusion on how impact health . Experts do argue, however, that sweeteners can overstimulate your sugar receptors, limiting your tolerance for mild tastes and affecting your eating habits . Sweeteners also increase sugar cravings and can lead to overeating.
How Your Body Processes Sweeteners
The taste of most sweeteners is notably different from that of sugar. That's because sweeteners contain a complex set of molecules that together result in a sweet-like taste. However, the combination of different molecules in these sugar substitutes also often results in the bitter aftertaste we mentioned earlier.
The way your body processes sweeteners is also different from how it deals with sugar. When you eat sugar, your digestive system breaks complex sugar molecules into simple ones. These simple sugar molecules called glucose then circulate your blood and this stimulates the release of insulin. Insulin is a pancreatic hormone that carries glucose into the cells to be used for energy.
Compared to sugar, your body can't digest nor use most sweeteners to make energy. That means that many common sweeteners contain no nutritional value. Still, sweeteners need to pass your gastrointestinal (GI) tract and eventually leave your body. Your liver processes most sweeteners and the kidneys help remove them safely.
Still, researchers have raised concern regarding the effects sweeteners have on health. Back in the 1970s, animal studies found that cyclamate increases bladder cancer risk which led to the ban of this sweetener in some states . Extensive research has helped separate the good from the bad sweeteners and we cover some of these below.
The sweeteners you'll see below are FDA-approved and also allowed in most countries worldwide. Research carried out so far shows that they're safe and even beneficial. All are sourced from nature and they're definitely keto-approved. Choose one or all to add to your keto desserts.
The number one keto sweetener of the moment is definitely stevia. Stevia, also called sweetleaf or sugarleaf, is a tropical plant of the sunflower family. It's is native to South America, growing best in warm climates.
Sweeteners made from stevia contain no calories and are sold under different brand names. The sweetness of stevia plant is most concentrated in the leaves. You can eat these leaves fresh or even add them to teas and desserts. However, most people prefer using products made from stevia.
The chemicals that give stevia plant its characteristic sweetness are called steviol glycosides. These are up to 300 times sweeter than sugar  and have a slight licorice flavor to them. People in South America have been using stevia for food and medicinal purposes for the last two hundred years. Nowadays, studies worldwide show that stevia is much healthier and better than artificial sweeteners.
To make stevia sweeteners, manufacturers first dry the leaves and then isolate its sweet compounds through various extraction methods. The process ends with spray drying resulting in stevia extract. The stevia plant does not require much land and resources, which also means that stevia is an environmentally-friendly, sustainable sweetener.
A great thing about stevia is that research shows that it does not accumulate in the body . Instead, what happens is that your liver metabolizes it to that your kidneys can excrete it through urine. Newer studies even suggest that stevia seems to be promising as a treatment for Lyme disease .
Erythritol is the second on the list of the popular keto sweetener. It is a special type of sugar alcohol naturally found in fruit and fermented foods. Sugar alcohols are natural compounds different from both sugars and alcohol. They don't raise blood glucose nearly as much as glucose. Many, however, have a strong laxative effect. Erythritol is an exception in this regard luckily.
Like stevia, erythritol also has zero calories, minimal effect on blood glucose, and is considered safe throughout much of the world. Manufacturers produce erythritol from glucose by fermentation with a yeast. The resulting sweetener is at least 70% sweeter than sugar. Many companies use erythritol in combination with other sweeteners to mask stronger flavors.
Most erythritol gets absorbed in the small intestine, reaches the kidneys, and is excreted in urine unchanged. About 10% of it, however, reaches the colon. This is important to note since many other sugar alcohols easily reach the colon where bacteria ferment them causing diarrhea and stomach upset.
In comparison, most colonic bacteria can't ferment erythritol. The same goes true for bacteria in your mouth which means this sweetener does not contribute to tooth decay. Erythritol does contain some number of calories but given that a small amount is enough to give a punch of sweetness, these calories are negligible.
Monk fruit is native to China and Thailand where people still use it as a low-calorie sweetener and medicinal plant. The extract from monk fruit is nearly 300 times sweeter than sugar, so a small amount is needed to sweeten meals. Monk fruit contains up to 40% carbohydrates, mostly in the form of fructose and glucose. Other compounds that enhance its sweetens are called mogrosides, a type of glycosides.
Traditionally, people harvested monk fruit when green and let it dry before storing. When dried, monk fruit browns and forms astringent flavors. Novel manufacturing processes remove volatile compounds from monk fruit that mask its sweet taste. The goal is to extract as much mogrosides from the fruit. These compounds make up only 1% of the flesh of the fresh fruit making monk fruit extracts quite expensive.
Since monk fruit extracts are expensive, you can expect that many products use fillers to create bulk and make the product more budget-friendly. Make sure to read the label when buying monk-fruit sweeteners. Inulin and vegetable glycerin are acceptable fillers on keto but watch out for sugar, molasses, and questionable artificial sweeteners.
Sweeteners extracted from monk fruit also contain zero calories. Studies on monk fruit glycosides show that they have cancer-fighting properties, especially against throat and bowel cancer . This effect comes mainly from the antioxidant activity of these compounds.
Inulin is a slightly sweet carbohydrate with only 10% of the sweetness of sugar. Inulin is classified as a fiber mainly because it passes through the GI tract undigested. It is a soluble fiber found in a range of root vegetables, most notably chicory.
Inulin sweeteners aren't of much use on their own because of their barely-there sweetness. However, it is a great filler ingredient and you'll often find it listed on keto sweeteners. Another great thing about inulin is that studies show it has many health benefits. It boosts calcium and magnesium absorption and also improves gut health .
The only downside to inulin is that it does contain calories and has a minimal impact on blood glucose. In fact, studies show that inulin has a beneficial effect on people with prediabetes or diabetes because it boosts insulin sensitivity .
The caloric value of inulin is low. More specifically, inulin has a caloric value that is 25-35% that of fructose or 1.5 calories per gram. Because people take in only a small amount of inulin to sweeten or enhance their dishes, the calories with inulin don't add up all that much.
Allulose, also known as psicose, is a simple sugar that's 70% as sweet as table sugar. What's more, it tastes exactly like the real thing while providing 5% of the calories of table sugar. Unfortunately, it's rare to find in nature, existing only in miniscule amounts in dried fruits like figs and raisins. Manufacturers need to make it from fructose using special enzymes.
Researchers have only recently discovered a way to make allulose on a larger scale, so it can become easily available as a food ingredient. That's why you'll notice that not many companies are making allulose-based sweeteners at the moment. But we expect that to change in the near future.
As far as health benefits of allulose go, research shows that your body cannot use it to make energy and that it's also resistant to fermentation by gut bacteria . In plain English, this means that allulose is also a zero-calorie sweetener with minimal impact on blood glucose.
Allulose may also have anti-inflammatory properties and prevents fatty-liver disease, but we need to wait for more research to know for sure. Given that allulose is a sweetener that most resembles sugar taste-wise, we can expect it soon being a big hit on the low-carb market.
On a keto diet, your main focus should be on eating clean, nutritious foods that are low in carbs but high in fats. It's always best to minimize your intake of sweeteners and fillers of any kind. However, there are those you need to avoid completely.
1. Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are made in the laboratory by combining artificial chemicals. In comparison, natural sweeteners are made through extraction and purification methods. There's much concern regarding their impact on health so artificial sweeteners are often the subject of scientific scrutiny.
A recent systematic review states that the biggest problem with artificial sweeteners is their impact on gut health . More specifically, these products tend to cause an imbalance of gut bacteria and lead to constipation.
Another problem with artificial sweeteners is that they often come with promises of weight loss and diabetes control. But so far, evidence shows that these products don’t help in these departments whatsoever . In fact, artificial sweeteners actually increase the risk of these problems in some people.
Examples of artificial sweeteners include aspartame, sucralose, saccharine, neotame, cyclamate, and Acesulfame potassium. These tend to be much cheaper than natural sweeteners and are often an ingredient of low-carb, and health foods. Make sure to read the label when buying any processed foods in the health food aisle.
2. Syrups and Honey
Maple syrup, rice malt syrup, agave nectar, molasses, and other syrup-y sweeteners are high in carbs and often have a very high glycemic index. These are for obvious reasons not suitable on a ketogenic diet. You may come across these products on health, paleo, and other wellness websites where they're often recommended as a sugar alternative.
Although these products are not sugar and some don't even contain fructose, they are higher on the glycemic scale than plain table sugar with the exception of maple syrup that has a slightly lower glycemic index.
While honey and maple syrup have some science-backed benefits which mainly come from their antioxidants, their high-carb content makes them a no-go on the keto diet. If you need something with a syrup-y consistency to add to your keto diet, we suggest going for low-carb maple syrup. You'll also find it sold as zero-carb pancake syrup. It's a maple-flavored product thickened with cellulose gum and vegetable glycerin.
3. Most Fruits
Berries are allowed on a keto diet, but only in small quantities. You can add them to smoothies and muffins to add a touch of sweetness. Dates, which are a popular natural sweetener, are too high in carbs to be keto-approved. We also don't suggest using any other dried fruits to sweeten your keto dishes.
Fruit juices are also off-limits on keto. They may be a healthy way to boost your micronutrient intake on a standard diet, but their high-carb content is sure to keep you far away from ketosis. Instead, you can make lemon water and sweeten it with any of our keto-approved options.
Another good alternative is berry powder. These usually contain around 3 grams of net carbs per tablespoon. They add a touch of sweetness and color to your favorite keto meals. They're made through freeze-drying methods which helps preserve their nutritive value. So, you get the additional vitamins and minerals by including these into your keto meals.
Sweeteners, or sugar substitutes as they're also called, are ok on a keto diet as long as they don't contain calories, carbs, and are extracted from natural sources. We've listed 5 such sweeteners here that you can include to your keto diet for a touch of sweetness.
On the other hand, you need to avoid anything that can raise your blood glucose. These are usually those sweeteners that are high in carbs and have a high glycemic index. Artificial sweeteners are also problematic because they can have a negative impact on your health despite not raising blood glucose or containing calories.
And as far as amounts are concerned, we suggest keeping it moderate with sweeteners. Many sweeteners are much sweeter than sugar which can overstimulate your taste buds. In the end, this can make mild foods taste unpalatable and can even lead to carb cravings.
As long as you choose natural, zero-carb sweeteners and use them in moderation, you'll stay in ketosis and have your health in check.