Sugar lies at the root of many health problems, including heart disease, obesity, and the onset of diabetes.
Unfortunately, sugar is getting increasingly harder to avoid, with added sugar hiding in packaged foods, peanut butter, canned soups, and even marinara sauce.
For ketoers with a sweet tooth, the idea of waving goodbye to all forms of sugar seems a bit daunting. Luckily, there are plenty of low carb and low calorie sweeteners that are better than sugar.
But for as many healthy alternatives that line store shelves, there are twice as many unhealthy sweeteners marketed as health products with unhealthy side effects.
To clear up any confusion, below you’ll learn about the best sugar substitutes (and the worst) available on the market:
Sugars are a type of carbohydrate that provides your body with energy.
There are both man-made and natural sugars. Natural sugars are found in high-carb foods like like fruit and starchy veggies, while others, such as granulated cane sugar, are extracted from foods to use during food processing, baking, and cooking.
Sugar, from all sources, easily kicks you out of ketosis because it spikes your blood sugar and makes your cells run on glucose.
If you’re looking for a low carb sugar substitute, it’s important to make sure there are no hidden carbs in the sweetener.
The Difference Between Sugars in Food and Sugars in Your Cupboard
The most common kinds of sugars are:
Sucrose is table sugar, made up of glucose and fructose. It can be extracted from sugar cane or sugar beet but it is also found in honey, fruits, and some vegetables. Likewise, fructose and glucose are found in honey, fruits, and vegetables.
Lactose is commonly referred to as milk sugar, due to its abundant presence in dairy products.
Maltose is the sugar found in beer and malted drinks[*].
The sugars you should be most concerned with are found in your kitchen cupboard. These include granulated sugar, caster sugar, icing sugar, and refined sugar.
One cup (or 200 grams) of sugar has a whopping 773 calories, including a shocking 200 grams of carbohydrates. Keep in mind, this contains no fiber, which means these 200 grams are the total net carb count as well.
Luckily for ketoers, there are plenty of low carb sugar substitutes to choose from, with fewer calories and carbohydrates. Some of the better options for sugar include:
Stevia is one of the more popular sugar alternatives, and for good reason.
While Americans may be more familiar with stevia coming in little packets, it’s actually an herb that belongs to the Asteraceae family, having an estimated 200 or more types of species of stevia that exist. Just take a look in the baking aisle of your local grocery store to discover there’s no shortage of stevia.
Stevia wasn’t always so sweet. In 1931, it was discovered that when two glycosides, stevioside and rebaudioside, are combined, it gives stevia a perfectly sweet taste.
Randomized controlled trials have shown stevia has minimal effects on blood glucose, insulin, blood pressure or weight, unlike sugar[*]. Plus, it contains zero calories and zero carbohydrates.
Erythritol can be a great low carb sugar substitute — if it’s a non-GMO (genetically modified organism) erythritol. Erythritol is a natural zero calorie sweetener and one of the natural sugar alcohols out there today. Truvia, a common zero-calorie sweetener, is made up primarily of erythritol.
Erythritol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol, found naturally in watermelon, grapes, pears, mushrooms, and a number of fermented foods. Unfortunately, it’s becoming a common man-made product, taking glucose and fermenting it with a yeast called Moniliella pollinis.
Note: Other sugar alcohols include sorbitol, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, and aspartame (usually found in Equal). These are not keto-friendly due to their association with a number of health risks.
Xylitol is another sugar alcohol found naturally in some fibers of certain fruits and vegetables. A low-digestible carbohydrate, xylitol is a derivative of xylose, a type of indigestible crystalline sugar. Unlike erythritol, xylitol is capable of raising blood glucose levels.
Xylitol is a bit higher in carbohydrates than other low carb sweeteners, with about 8 grams of carbohydrates per serving (or 2 teaspoons). However, it does provide some benefits. Xylitol has been shown to improve oral health and prevent cavities[*].
Tagatose tastes similar to erythritol and table sugar. It’s a monosaccharide found naturally found in dairy products, fruit, and cacao.
Like other low carb sugars, tagatose only has a small effect on blood sugar levels. Studies show tagatose helps increase HDL cholesterol levels (high-density lipoproteins)[*], which is beneficial for heart health.
There are plenty of supposed “healthy” sugar alternatives which are not permitted on the keto diet. This is primarily due to the total number of carbohydrates.
Although better for your health than regular table sugar, they still cause a blood sugar spike — which is what you’re trying to avoid on keto.
But raw honey is not permitted on keto because of its carb content. One tablespoon of raw honey contains 17 grams of net carbs — 16 of which come from sugar. It contains zero grams total fat, no dietary fiber, and only a tenth of a gram of protein[*].
Pure maple syrup is an unprocessed, natural sweetener made by boiling sap from maple trees into a syrup. It’s filled with antioxidants (typically, the darker the syrup, the higher the antioxidant content)[*].
However, maple syrup is comprised of 99% carbohydrates, not exactly ideal for the keto diet. A single tablespoon contains 52 calories and 13.4 grams of carbs[*]. While this wouldn’t completely use up your carb allotment for the day, the consumption of maple syrup is not recommended because you could be getting those carbs from more nutritional food sources.
Fun fact: Agave comes from the same plant tequila comes from. While it’s commonly marketed as a healthy alternative to sugar, it’s an incredibly processed product and should be avoided at all costs.
Agave contains compounds called fructans, which break down into fructose during processing. Although fructose ranks low on the glycemic index, it has been shown to cause weight gain and insulin resistance in the long term[*].
Coconut Palm Sugar
Coconut sugar is made from the sap of the flowers of the coconut palm tree. In appearance, it looks incredibly similar to brown sugar, but a little more grainy in texture. Like agave, it ranks low on the glycemic index, but with less fructose.
While not overly processed, coconut palm sugar is simply too high in carbohydrates to be considered keto-friendly. It contains 105 calories per ounce, and 28 grams of carbs — 21 of which are sugar[*].
These sugar alternatives should be completely avoided, whether you are following the keto diet or not, due to associated health risks.
Splenda, also known as sucralose, is the most widely used artificial sweetener. Unfortunately, sucralose has been shown to cause inflammation and reduce the number of healthy bacteria in your gut[*].
Sweet’N Low is made with saccharin, a white powder that’s 200 times sweeter than sugar. Like other artificial sweeteners, saccharin is regulated by the FDA. The FDA has labeled saccharin as “generally recognized as safe,” although early studies showed an association between the sweetener and cancer.
Studies in the 1970s done with laboratory rats linked saccharin with bladder cancer. A similar link has yet to be found in humans[*].
High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup is a liquid sweetener made from fructose and glucose. With 53.4 calories and 14.4 grams of carbohydrates in a single tablespoon, high fructose corn syrup does not provide any more health benefits than regular table sugar[*] and it’s far more dangerous.
High fructose corn syrup has been found to contribute to metabolic disorders and altered dopamine function[*].
There’s a common misconception that brown sugar is healthier than white sugar. In reality, brown sugar is just normal table sugar with molasses introduced. Also called raw sugar, brown sugar is simply white sugar that’s not completely refined, usually made with roughly 5–10% molasses[*].
Choose the Right Sweet Stuff
When it comes to sugar substitutes, it’s great to find a low calorie, low carb alternative, free of negative health effects.
Choose a sweetener that’s low on the glycemic index, natural, and minimally processed. Keep in mind that some natural sweeteners, like raw honey and maple syrup are not permitted on keto due to their carb content.
There’s no shortage of recipes incorporating keto-friendly sweeteners. For different ideas on how to work these healthier sugar alternatives in your diet, check out the these keto desserts.