An excerpt from Keto Living 2: Sweet and Savory Snacks
After much thought, I decided that in a book that includes some recipes that call for a granulated or powdered sugar substitute to be added as an ingredient in some cases, this information really needed to be shared to clear up a lot of the misinformation surrounding sugar alternatives available to us as consumers.
In cases where a recipe calls for a sugar substitute, we are of course looking to use a product that is for all intents and purposes a cup for cup exchange for sugar by volume, and one should attempt to use powdered for the recipes that require it, and granulated in those instances.
If you are choosing to purchase a store bought blend and can only find granulated, you can use a blender to make powdered if the recipe calls for it.
For our purposes where a sugar substitute is used in a recipe, in all nutritional panels this has been calculated and added to the totals as if the increasingly popular sweet polyol (or sugar alcohol), Erythritol was used, and this has been calculated at 0.2 carb calories per gram.
If however, you decide to use an alternative sweetener or create your own blend such as the ‘Ella’s All Purpose Mix’ example recipe provided at the end of this section, you would need to do a different nutritional calculation for each recipe accordingly.
Now, I think it’s important to look at this more carefully, to understand the options available.
Every sugar substitute brand on the shelf contains different ingredients, the two main components being the sweetener itself, and if required a bulking agent to bring the product up to a cup for cup mix.
What we are of course looking for is the perfect balance of mouthfeel, texture, lowest carb content, and similarity in baking properties, and of course carries a history of product safety, and minimal if any discomfort from use.
If you don’t want to overthink things at all, and just get straight to the kitchen, then your most basic baking sweetener alternative that requires the least amount of work and effort is to use pure Erythritol, a sugar alcohol.
Erythritol, when used in direct replacement for sugar is 70% as sweet as sugar with 90% absorbed in the small intestine and not metabolised, excreted unchanged in the urine and the remaining 10% only partially metabolised. These unique properties gives Erythritol a documented figure of only 0.2 calories per gram, as opposed to white table sugars 3.8 calories per gram.
Some loosely argue the calorie content is really even closer to zero, and that none is absorbed, and in fact is listed as such on labels in Japan and the United States. Others maintain that around 5-10% is absorbed, giving it a caloric count of approximately 0.24 calories per gram, which seems closer to scientific fact in my opinion.
Either way, this is a very nice low carb, low GI ingredient to use that is also dental friendly. There are minimal complaints of stomach upset, with reports of any kind of nausea only arising in sensitive individuals consuming over 50g of product per day, which in baking, is usually a fair amount of servings.
So for starting out, this is a good all round sugar substitute. If the 70% sweetness doesn’t quite meet the grade, either a couple more tablespoons per cup can make it up without altering the structure of most recipes with any real detriment, or preferably I’d suggest adding a couple of drops of a liquid sweetener of your choice such as Stevia will also suffice, and add a nice synergy to the flavor.
Aside from Erythritol, almost all other Keto recommended sugar alternatives are so powerful in sweetness that many brands on the shelf need to use both a proprietary blend of a sweetener and some filler to make up the volume to a cup to cup approximation to sugar, more suited to baking.
With these blends, there are considerations with each and every combination.
So it’s time to get educated on label reading.
First I should mention that when reading the nutritional information on the label of many cup to cup sugar substitute packages to exercise caution, as many products are outright listed as zero calories.
There appears to be a legislative loophole in some countries that classifies amounts as small as a teaspoon as a ‘serving’ and therefore negligible enough in calories to pass labelling guidelines as a zero calorie per serving product.
Obviously this leaves us without the full picture when using these products in larger quantities, a picture very important for our needs.
Although I could refer you straight to the manufacturer’s web sites, and ingredient listings – even many of these websites are opting not to include this information, instead simply running with the ‘Zero calorie’ claims.
So it becomes up to us to do our research on what constitutes a sweetener, a sugar alcohol, and a filler and the potential uses of each. The most common with a few of my notes are as follows.
Agave Nectar (GI – 15)
I personally avoid this high carb option. It’s less glycemic than glucose but has almost the same caloric result.
Aspartame (GI – 0)
With controversial results stemming from a lot of studies on excessive consumption of this sweetener, I wouldn’t with any confidence, recommend Aspartame as a first choice. Also, at high temperatures, this artificial sweetener becomes unstable for baking, so for me, aspartame remains a no.
Monk fruit (Luo Han Guo) (GI – 0)
This sweetener is extracted from fruit and is 150x sweeter than sugar and is tasty as a carefully measured additive in a blend. Some brands makes an interesting mix of this and Erythritol to try and closely match the taste and ‘cup for cup’ usage of sugar.
Saccharine (GI – 0)
Not good for baking, and has a bitter aftertaste.
Stevia (GI – 0)
This glycoside extracted from the leaf of a plant, is 300x the sweetness of regular sugar, and also a popular choice. Over the years stevia has taken a bit of criticism, firstly for its well documented aftertaste reminiscent of liquorice, which seems to have been all but eliminated in the refined liquid form available from many brands.
Secondly, the jury seems to still not be completely finished with the safety of stevia. Reports and tests show that normal quantities are fine, but there were some unfortunate rats tested along the way in much larger dosages that didn’t fare so well.
My verdict on Stevia personally, is that the small quantity required is suitable in general as an additive to a blend.
Sucralose (GI – 0)
At 600x strength and a flavor profile that very nearly matches sugar, this artificial sweetener needs to be added with a precise calculation, although again I should note that data is still being collected on the product and is no longer globally accepted as completely safe based on some studies of long term use.
Polyols or Sugar Alcohols
In a category of their own, but also what we will list here as a sweetener are Sugar Alcohols, a class of polyol, but have no fear if you are sober, there contain no ethanol so it’s not really that kind of alcohol!
Sugar alcohols occur naturally, and are often obtained through hydrogenation and fermentation processes.
Polyols used as a sugar substitute by most individuals will be fine, although each can cause varying degrees of gastro-intestinal complaints in high consumption in sensitive individuals.
Also the strength of sweetness and therefore volume in baking usage of a sugar alcohol is closer to that of sugar, in comparison to the many 100x or more strength options in the previous category.
All of these are low GI though, and the teeth don’t seem to suffer as a rule either.
Erythritol (GI – 1)
Recommended – as mentioned above Erythritol is a no (to very low) GI polyol, contains only 0.2 calories / gram, is 70% as sweet as sugar when used cup for cup in place of sugar, and doesn’t promote tooth decay.
Also, being absorbed in the small intestine gives it less of a laxative effect than other sugar alcohols.
Look for pure Erythritol with no fillers if seeking the lowest calorie product. Proprietary blends or careful adding of small amounts of other high strength sweeteners such as Stevia, Sucralose or Monk Fruit can work well in conjunction, and will not add significantly to caloric or carb content.
Maths is important here when working out quantities as some sweeteners are 100’s of times stronger than regular sugar!
Also, larger doses over 50g in a day has been known to potentially bring about side effects in particularly sensitive individuals such as hives, stomach rumbling and nausea. Also increased urination and thirst is pretty common with all sugar alcohols.
Anecdotally, it appears that Erythritol can also have a drying effect on some foods – so it’s fine in moister recipes, but use your judgement, and perhaps compensate with a dryer baked recipe by adding a little xanthum gum and cream cheese for example.
In the same vein, a no bake cheese cake for example with no liquid ingredient may suffer using Erythritol with drying / recrystallizing.
Lastly, not all but some report an unusual taste in certain final products, such as when chocolate, coffee or peanut butter is the main component of the dish.
Glycerol / Glycerine (GI – 5)
In most cases, I would suggest to avoid – Glycerine has about 2/3 the sweetening power as regular sugar and it actually contains slightly more calories than sugar, having 27 calories per teaspoon versus sugar’s 20 calories. However, a teaspoon or two of this can be used in ice-cream as a powerful freezing point depressor, and to help reduce ice crystals from forming. Also the taste will suffer above this quantity and on a Keto diet I’m careful not to add too much, or instead use an alternative.
Sorbitol (GI – 4)
Avoid overall, it has about 3/4 the sweetening power as regular sugar, with about 2/3 the calories, also carries a slight effect on blood sugar, and a pronounced laxative effect.
Xylitol (GI – 12)
For Keto specifically, I mainly steer clear of this sugar substitute. In general however, it has some positives.
It’s cup for cup in usage, and just as sweet as sugar, actually has properties beneficial to dental health, and the GI is only 12, but… it contains just 40% less calories than sugar, so in general depending on the recipe requirement, this is too high if we want to reduce carbs, which we do – that being said, Xylitol could possibly be used minimally in a blend if the taste appealed and the mix benefitted the recipe. As with many sugar alcohols though, Xylitol can have a laxative effect.
Please be aware, although most other polyols are safe if ingested by a pet, Xylitol is toxic to dogs, cats and other pets, so if you use this polyol, don’t leave your leftovers near your canine companion!
Isomalt (GI – 2), Lactitol (GI – 3), Mannitol (GI – 2)
all have about half the sweetening power as regular sugar, with half the calories give or take, and based on this I would avoid these.
Maltitol (GI – 35)
I avoid anything containing Maltitol, as it is still heavy in calories and has a pronounced effect on blood sugar. If you read the side of many ‘Low-Carb’ protein bars, look for the Maltitol content. In my opinion, you should tread carefully to avoid a potential trap.
Whether you’ll find a filler or not in a product on the shelf, or if you need to include one in a blend you mix up yourself at home depends on a couple of factors.
Firstly, the maths behind the sweetness intensity per volume of sugar substitute needs to be calculated, and secondly, a scientific benefit inherent from the addition of certain fillers is often a recipe dependent factor, which we will get into in a moment.
Below are a few of the more commonly known fillers, and some notes on each.
Maltodextrin (GI – 110) and Dextrose (GI – 100)
Avoid as these bulking agents contain a very high GI and a near carb/calorie per gram count as sugar (Sucrose has a Glycemic Index of 100).
Polydextrose (GI – 6)
OK – now this is a synthetic polymer synthesized from dextrose and a pretty good filler in moderation, it has an overall good profile, sporting a low GI and a caloric value of around 1 calorie per gram.
This can certainly add up quickly, although once you know your substitutes well, using Polydextrose in some recipes can give better results as an alternative or blended into certain creations.
For instance, it’s a pretty good freezing point depressor similar in some ways to sugar. Ice-cream benefits in overall ‘scoopability’ by including Polydextrose in a sugar substitute blend.
Polydextrose actually also has some sweetness, but by itself will not usually be sweet enough, and as with fillers in general, will require a sweetener added.
As an aside, for a non-baked application, dissolving the Polydextrose first in a warm liquid is fairly essential.
Some people do report digestive issues consuming Polydextrose, and therefore quantity should be measured with care.
Also, having recently gone a little out of style a little in low carb circles, it’s a reasonably difficult ingredient to track down and may require some research to find if attempting to use this in a blend.
Inulin and Oligofructose (GI – 1)
These are also a good option in a blend, with similar properties to Polydextrose.
Often extracted from chicory root or synthesized from sucrose, these fiber fillers contain around 1.5 calories per gram, anecdotally this can be less in some individuals depending on how each person processes fiber of this nature.
Benefits in a blend that includes Erythritol, may include hiding the cooling effect Erythritol carries.
Again, these fibers can cause gastro-intestinal issues in above average doses.
A Word on Blends and Brands
The combinations you can find on the shelves, many touting ‘Zero calorie’ claims is quite extensive.
Maltodextrin and Sucralose could be the contents of one blend, or you may discover a higher priced but nicely reviewed Erythritol and Monk Fruit. Some blends are found containing Oligofructose, or Inulin / Chicory Root is popular, then there is some that contain Polydextrose, and some may use a percentage of a combination of sweeteners but still also use a percentage white sugar as an ingredient in an attempt to advertise loudly their ‘tastes like sugar, reduced calorie brand’.
And with blend in hand, some experimenting bakers may also add additional bulk to a recipe with scientifically measured portions of Guar or Xanthan Gum, Psyllium Husk, or other fibers or ingredients for additional structure and integrity.
Ella’s All Purpose Mix
In making our own sugar substitute, the ultimate goal for us in a blend is to mimic sweetness, and add bulk while heavily reducing carbs and calories, and of course GI keeping in mind that sweeteners often combine synergistically in a way that makes a more natural product.
For a pretty good all round very low GI baking ‘sugar’, I often use 75% pure Erythritol, 25% Polydextrose or Inulin, and a carefully measured amount of luo han guo, sucralose, or stevia to taste.
In addition, ultimately the best mix will vary depending on exactly what you are trying to cook.
The Ice-Cream Example
Sometimes we need to revisit our blend to better suit a recipe. For example, the hardness of ice-cream is largely controlled by the combination of sweeteners used, as there are various freezing points for each.
Without getting too technical, regular sucrose has a freezing point of 1.0x, Erythritol is 2.8x this, and Polydextrose is 0.6x – so it may be advisable to add more Polydextrose and less Erythritol to get the consistency just right when building a sugar substitute for this icy treat.
Maltodextrin, aside from its other reasons as a poor choice has a freezing point of 0.1x, so unless you want a brick of ice-cream in the fridge, you’d avoid anything containing this.
In fact, with ice cream there are many tricks to get the consistency just right. As your experimentation deepens, you may find yourself adding a teaspoon or two of glycerine (see notes for why in Glycerine above).
Or, you may even opt to add a couple of tablespoons of vodka to a liter. This will have a similar benefit, but will effectively churn up an ‘adults only batch’. The alcohol doesn’t freeze so the end product is again, more scoopable – but of course, if making this batch, you should be careful the kids don’t get into it!
And to continue to add to the ice-cream confusion, too much Polydextrose can be too gummy, and too much Erythritol can cause crystallization.
Oh, the joys of cooking! Ice-cream in particular however, is a delicate flower to work with, that’s for certain.
So in conclusion, the simplest and lowest carb choice is to bake with the sugar alcohol Erythritol, keeping aware of how your body reacts to amounts around or over 50g a day, and being careful to watch how certain recipes handle the ingredient, and your overall enjoyment of the taste and level of sweetness.
As you enter the slightly more complex experimentation phase, adding different sweeteners will create some lovely synergy and is in some cases mandatory for a really effective flavor, and adjusting the balance of Erythritol to include a varying ratio of Polydextrose or Inulin will give different results again, depending on the science and structure of the dish taking into account a variety of factors such as dish dryness, flavor, freezing point requirements etc.
Almost everyone will find or create a mix or a brand that works perfectly for them with just a little research, and when you do, you’ll have even greater confidence in cooking these dishes.
In the meantime, please experiment yourself, or try my ‘Ella’s All Purpose Mix’. Most importantly have fun with the recipes ahead, only a handful of them use a sugar substitute, but this is good information to carry with you from hereon.