Sugar may be sweet, but that doesn’t mean everything with a sweet taste is necessarily bad for you.
While a healthy diet should ideally emphasize real, whole foods, some people enjoy using low carb sweeteners.
However, there are so many choices, and they all claim to be better than the rest. As a result, it’s hard to know which one to use.
This article will take a look at some of the best natural sweeteners for a low carb diet.
Each one is basically health neutral, or possibly even good for you.
Best Natural Sweeteners
In no particular order, here are the top five natural sweeteners.
Note: Most of these do still involve a certain amount of processing; the term ‘natural’ is to differentiate from purely lab-made chemical (artificial) sweeteners.
|Name||Calories (100g)||Carbs (100g)||Glycemic Impact|
*These are sugar alcohols and our body doesn’t metabolize them into glucose. Hence there is no effect on blood sugar levels.
These traditional natural sweeteners contain combinations of sucrose, fructose, and glucose.
All in all, we should maybe class them as ‘premium sugar.’
They’re a bit more expensive and a little better nutritionally, but at the end of the day: sugar is sugar.
How About Zero Calorie Artificial Sweeteners?
I don’t recommend artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose.
While I don’t think they are as terrible as some people say, there are enough negative studies to err on the side of caution.
In the case of sucralose, the center for science in the public interest (CSPI) downgraded it from “safe” to “caution” in 2013. This downgrade was followed by another in 2016 from “caution” to “avoid.”
These downgrades in the safety rating were due to the results of a long-term study that showed the sweetener causes leukemia in animal studies.
This particular study was the first independent look at the long-term effects of the sweetener. Previous long-term studies had more limitations, and Splenda—the manufacturer—provided industry funding (4).
The Top 5 Natural Sweeteners
Each of these sweeteners has either a minimal or zero glycemic index.
Up to the present time, the bulk of the studies indicates that they are safe.
1. Monk Fruit
Otherwise known as ‘Luo Han Guo,’ monk fruit stands out as one of the healthiest natural sweeteners.
The fruit is native to Southeast Asia, growing around the border areas of southern China and northern Thailand, and it looks like this:
As we can see, the fruit certainly has a unique look.
Not only is monk fruit naturally occurring, but the entire production process showcases the fact that it’s one of the more natural sugar substitutes.
Making the Extract
There are no expensive methods or questionable chemicals in the process, which consists of these simple steps:
- First, people remove the skin and seeds of the fruit.
- Next, the fruit is crushed to collect the juice.
- This juice is then mixed with hot water and at this point, it goes through an ultrafiltration process.
- The resulting monk fruit extract is about 150-200 times sweeter than sugar, and despite this, it surprisingly contains no calories or carbs.
However, be aware that some commercial extracts mix in dextrose—a simple sugar—as a bulking agent.
If you want to be sure you’re getting pure monk fruit extract, then go for the liquid form of the sweetener.
Why Choose Monk Fruit?
There are several advantages of using monk fruit, namely:
- It’s a zero calorie, non-glycemic sweetener that won’t spike blood sugar levels.
- The natural manufacturing process.
- Monk fruit has a sweet, natural feel and there’s no strange aftertaste.
What Do the Studies Say?
When hearing that something is “hundreds of times sweeter than sugar,” some people worry that there might be health consequences.
To be honest, so do I.
However, from looking at the studies, the consensus is that monk fruit extract is overwhelmingly safe.
Here are some findings:
- Monk fruit has anti-oxidative and anti-diabetic properties. Notably, this study shows that the extract downregulates inflammatory responses (5).
- Monk fruit contains antioxidant compounds called mogrosides that show antiproliferative properties. In other words, they help prevent the growth of various cancers (6).
- These mogrosides also have potent free-radical scavenging abilities, and in vitro studies show that they protect against DNA damage (7).
Additionally, despite being relatively new to the western world—monk fruit has been used in China for hundreds—if not thousands—of years.
During this time, there doesn’t appear to be any reports of harm.
Where to Buy?
It’s possible to find monk fruit in local health stores, or you can find it online.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol, and it’s also one of the safest, most well-researched natural sweeteners.
To clarify, the term ‘sugar alcohol’ can be a bit confusing — it’s not sugar, and it contains no alcohol. We can derive these compounds from fruits and vegetables.
Appearance wise, erythritol looks similar to standard table sugar:
Some people even dub it ‘healthy sugar,’ because people can use it as a like-for-like replacement for table sugar.
On the positive side, this takes a lot of the guesswork out of trying to find an ‘equivalent dose’ to match the sweetness of sugar.
With erythritol, a teaspoon is just a teaspoon!
The Production Process
Producing erythritol involves fermenting the naturally occurring sugars found in corn.
Here’s a quick rundown of what happens:
- First, there is a process to extract glucose from corn.
- Next, the producers add a type of yeast to the glucose to ferment it.
- Following this, the resulting ferment goes through cleaning and filtering.
- Once clean, a crystallization process takes place to produce the finished product—erythritol comes in a powdered form.
Is Erythritol Safe? Are There Any Dangers?
As one of the more natural sugar substitutes, the safety profile of erythritol is relatively impressive:
- Use of the sweetener has beneficial effects on reducing and fighting dental plaque. Similar to other sugar alcohols, it also doesn’t contribute to tooth decay (10).
- In contrast to artificial sweeteners, long-term animal studies on erythritol fail to find any evidence of carcinogenic activity (11, 12).
- Unlike sugar, erythritol is non-fermentable in the gut, and therefore it cannot feed the growth of harmful bacteria. As a result, it’s suitable for a (no sugar) candida diet (13).
Some People Experience Mild Side Effects
It’s important to realize that some people have mild side effects from using erythritol.
These side effects relate specifically to digestive issues such as gas, bloating, and possibly abdominal pain.
However, these side effects are rare and tend to occur only when consuming a significant amount of the sweetener (14).
For some people, there is a concern around the fact that genetically modified corn is the source of most erythritol.
GMO is a whole other topic, but if you wish to avoid GMO products then be aware of this and check the packaging carefully.
Some brands will be GMO, and others are not.
Where to Buy?
You should be able to find erythritol in health stores, or possibly at big retailers. You can easily buy it on the Internet too.
Stevia has exploded in popularity over the past decade, and there are all kinds of stevia products on the market.
There are three principal forms of stevia:
- Powdered stevia
- Stevia liquid extract
- Whole leaf stevia
Powdered and Liquid Stevia Extracts
While these two extracts originate in nature, don’t kid yourself that they are “natural.” They come from an industrial process that sometimes uses solvents.
By this, I’m not saying they are unhealthy — it’s just something to be aware of.
Stevia also contains some compounds known as steviol glycosides. In basic terms, these are sugar-containing non-carbohydrates.
Most of the research on stevia’s benefits focuses on one of these glycosides—stevioside (15).
However, stevia extracts do not contain stevioside, and they only concentrate the sweetest part of the leaf — rebaudioside.
Stevia extracts come in either a liquid dropper bottle or as a white powder.
Whole Leaf Stevia
In contrast, the pure leaf form of stevia is likely the most natural sweetener in the world. It is literally just the leaves of the stevia plant.
While stevia extract is incredibly sweet, whole leaf stevia has a more subtle sweetness and a slightly bitter aftertaste.
You can find this sweetener either in whole leaf or powdered (green) form.
What Are the Benefits of Stevia?
There is quite a bit of research on the health benefits of stevia.
To begin with, stevia is zero glycemic and won’t raise your blood sugar levels. This trait makes it a great option for diabetics — and anyone else who cares about their health.
Here are some more findings:
- Some studies show that stevioside (in the whole leaf form) has anti-hyperglycemic, anti-hypertensive, and anti-inflammatory properties (16).
- Whole leaf stevia powder is safe for use as an anti-diabetes herb. Notably, it reduces fasting triglyceride levels and VLDL-C levels (18).
Where to Buy?
Stevia is available at most health stores and markets, and there’s a wide range of choice online.
Sharing some similarities with erythritol, xylitol is another sugar alcohol.
While it does contain significant amounts of carbohydrate, the body doesn’t metabolize these carbs into glucose.
As a result, xylitol is very low on the glycemic index and has minimal effect on blood sugar levels.
To emphasize; the glycemic index is only 7, compared to a glycemic index of 100 in pure glucose (19).
Xylitol is commercially available as a white powder that looks identical to sugar.
It is also widely used as a sugar substitute and we can find it in chewing gum, toothpaste, and other sugar-free products.
Overall, it’s a healthy sweetener which enjoys popularity in low carb circles.
How is Xylitol Made?
Fruits and vegetables naturally contain a small amount of xylitol, so it’s ‘natural’ in that sense.
However, the process to make it is quite complicated. As part of this process, a kind of plant fiber called xylan is extracted from corn cellulose.
Following this extraction, phosphoric acid is used to treat the xylan, which then undergoes a hydrogenation process.
So, while xylitol is viewed as a ‘natural sweetener,’ it undergoes an industrial production process.
It is also possible to find xylitol produced from tree bark.
Safety Profile of Xylitol
The safety profile of xylitol is good.
Xylitol also has several benefits for dental health; unlike regular table sugar, xylitol is non-fermentable by oral bacteria.
Consequently, plaque-causing bacteria which live in the mouth cannot feed on it.
One thing to be aware of is that some people experience digestive issues following xylitol consumption.
Some of these symptoms include gas, bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea.
However, small doses are unlikely to cause problems. For example, participants in a gastrointestinal study of xylitol all tolerated it well on doses of up to 35g.
In this particular study, there were only symptoms of gastrointestinal distress at doses of over 50g (26).
For any dogs reading this, make sure to avoid anything containing xylitol.
It is extremely toxic, and even a small amount can be fatal, so let your owners know they shouldn’t leave it lying around.
Where to Buy?
You can find xylitol in almost any store, and there’s a huge range on Amazon.
5. Swerve Sweetener
Swerve is a brand name product that enjoys a lot of popularity with those who enjoy low carb baking.
The sweetener is actually a blend of three ingredients: erythritol, inulin, and ‘natural’ flavors.
It is very similar to erythritol, the primary ingredient, and many people say that Swerve tastes just like sugar, but without all the drawbacks.
To sum up, it’s a like-for-like, gram-for-gram sugar replacement, and it’s one of the best natural sweeteners you can buy.
This website recently did an in-depth review of Swerve, so if you’re after some more information, then you can see the review here.
First of all, if you’re following a low carb plan to improve your health, then it’s important to realize that real food should be the priority.
By this, I mean that swapping out regular sweet foods made from sugar and wheat flour for replacements using coconut flour and sweeteners isn’t the way forward.
However, some people enjoy using low carb sweeteners for occasional treats, which is no problem at all.
It is certainly a much better idea than eating the original full-sugar version.
And if you’re looking for a sugar substitute, then these five are probably the best natural sweeteners for a low carb diet.