With a ketogenic diet, the point is an all-out reduction in carbs. You’ll be left with veggies – but can you enjoy delicious sweet foods on keto?
Sweeteners and other forms of sugar substitutes provide a way of increasing your satisfaction with the diet, with minimal changes to your carb count!
Today we’ll be discussing sugar alcohols and what they can do to fill this gap in your life. They may be exactly what you’re looking for, but they’re not perfect for everyone.
Stick with us if you’re interested in sugar alcohols on keto, whether they’re keto-friendly, and what they might be able to do for you!
Sugar alcohols: what are they?
Sugar alcohols are a form of a mostly-indigestible compound that tends to be far sweeter than sugar. They’re often used in sugar-free foods to reduce the overall carb burden and insulin-spikes that come from actual sugars.
This sounds a little too good to be true and has been met with a lot of skepticism. Sugar alcohols are well-positioned to really help an individual on the ketogenic diet if they live up to promises, but there are concerns for side effects and how these sweet compounds can be totally calorie-free.
There’s a very human tendency to dismiss the ‘too good to be true’ as exactly that. And to be fair- it presents a significant concern – especially when these compounds are often called “artificial sweeteners” and are commonly found in highly-processed foods. This isn’t even true, most of the time.
Sugar alcohols aren’t necessarily artificial sweeteners, however. While some are produced synthetically (which isn’t a health risk), there are many non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) that are produced from plant extracts. Sugar alcohols tend to fall into this category.
This skepticism is definitely more intense than the research would require, but It’s not entirely misguided…
Are sugar alcohols a problem on keto?
There are legitimate problems with non-nutritive or low-calorie sweeteners that need to be understood and navigated for better health and wellbeing.
There are no “magic solutions” in nutrition and the way that we’ve seen these compounds act does raise some questions about their trade-offs.
Insulin response: less, not none
The insulin response to non-nutritive sweeteners, of which sugar alcohols are a group, is reduced compared to sugar but it still exists.
The body’s release of insulin is associated with the psychological experience of sweetness, as well as the simple structure of these compounds. This can be useful when they’re taken during/before exercise, but it does pose questions about their role in keto and in metabolic dysfunction.
Excessive release of insulin is the key problem associated with type-2 diabetes and is also one of the things that Ketogenic dieting attempts to avoid. This is massively reduced with sugar alcohols, however, when compared to sugar itself.
On the glycaemic index – the measure of insulin response foods – some sugar alcohols (such as lactitol) have a ‘-1’ score. This is lower than you’re likely to find in any compound and ensures that the effect on insulin specifically is a non-issue for these compounds.
They reduce the intake of sugar when used in reasonable amounts and can significantly reduce the overall risk of diabetes when used responsibly. Problems only occur when these compounds are used in excessive, regular, irresponsible ways…
Dissociation of sweetness and satiety
The key impact of sugar alcohols that increases diabetes and metabolic risks are associated with their psychological effects.
These food and drink sweeteners can lead to dissociation between the taste-experience of sweetness and satiety. This basically means that you get used to sweet foods not providing any “filling” feeling.
This can rapidly lead to increased appetite and food over-consumption, which is obviously a serious problem for any diet! A ketogenic diet is packed with high-energy foods because of the fat intake, so clearly it’s worth being careful with this kind of behavioral change!
As mentioned, this is often associated with regular intake of these compounds at a level that can change your psychology. If you’re using these as a replacement for the occasional sugary beverage, their negative impacts are limited.
We recommend avoiding excessive intake of sweetened foods/beverages, but using them instead of their sugary counterparts when you’re struggling with cravings is totally reasonable. It’s the pattern of behavior that is unhealthy – sugar alcohols are totally healthy when you moderate your overall intake.
Digestive concerns: are they justified?
The final concern that you may have about sugar alcohols is their tendency to produce digestive discomfort.
Studies have shown that there are some concerns for digestive distress when consumed at over 20g per day. This is an even greater concern when they are consumed all at once, or through a high-concentration source.
This is a relatively large intake – it would be similar to the overall intake of carbohydrates on a traditional ketogenic diet. Clearly, there’s a concern when consuming this many sugar alcohols in one day.
This seems to be a problem of degree and habits, not of the compounds themselves. These doses are likened to consuming cans and cans of sweetened beverages, which is worth avoiding for the behavioral problems it can lead to - as mentioned above.
Finding a way around this problem is simple: don’t consume sugar alcohols in huge quantities or in high concentrations. They’re less of a problem when combined with a regular nutrient dense diet.
In any other context, they’re keto-friendly since they’re non-nutritive and don’t spike an insulin response in the same way as sugar. When we compare the impacts of sugar consumption instead of sugar alcohols, they’re clearly better for a ketogenic diet.
If the worst we can complain about is increased flatulence and sitting uneasily at serious doses, this seems a small price to pay for reduced diabetes risk. It also means ketosis is entirely plausible since you’d have to consume 100s of grams to see much significant carbohydrate load.
Types of sugar alcohols and their benefits/side effects
The type of sugar alcohol you’re exposed to will naturally affect the dietary effects. They’re not all created equal and should be double checked for their pros and cons.
One of the earlier generations of sugar alcohol, this compound is associated with digestive distress when taken in huge doses. This is where some of the reputations came from, but it takes 100s of grams to produce significant problems to your health.
This sweetener has 6% of the calorie content of sugar, which makes it a great choice for your diet – easy to fit into 20-30g of NET carbs!
This is a commonplace sugar alternative and is well-regarded because it’s so tolerable and sweet with almost no calorie or carb content.
Despite being sugar alcohol, inositol is also a pseudo-vitamin that positively effects everything from PCOS to improved insulin sensitivity. This means better female reproductive health/fertility and reduced risk of diabetes.
Clearly, these sugar alcohols aren’t Faustian bargains with the devil. They’re just sweet compounds that aren’t sugar.
There’s not a specific calorie-content match for Inositol but it continues to be mostly-indigestible in the same way as both erythritol and xylitol. The fermentation in the digestive system can cause gas at high intakes, so make sure you’re keeping fiber intake high if you’re consuming large amounts.
This compound actually comes from the bark of trees and other forms of plant fibers, which are themselves interesting compounds. These confer some mild probiotic benefits, too, supporting gut bacteria.
With a GI of 7, xylitol is a classic example of new-age sugar alcohol. It produces a very small effect on blood sugar. It doesn’t spike the overall carb level as much as sugar and provides a relatively consistent, stable digestive compound.
Xylitol does provide around 2-2.4calories per gram, so it’s not entirely non-nutritive. This results in a higher carb intake than some other compounds on this list, but still keeps insulin release low and is a clearly superior alternative to sugar.
Sorbitol is known for its ability to soften stool and is a useful low-intensity laxative found in foods like prunes.
This has a similar calorie content to Xylitol, with around 2.4 calories per gram, and an equally small effect on insulin response.
The problem with sorbitol is an increased digestive burden and less of the same probiotic benefits that we see with Xylitol. This is found in common high-sweetness foods and may be getting a bad rap because of how easy it is to over-consume sweetened drinks/foods.
It’s definitely still better than sugar, but certainly not the most keto-friendly NNS!
This is the most anti-insulin compound we’ve ever discussed. As a sugar alcohol, this compound actively decreases blood sugar levels with a GI of -1. This is the first time we’ve discussed a compound with a negative glycaemic index.
This is the best example of a sugar alcohol providing metabolic benefits over its sugar counterpart. Clearly, this won’t be providing any significant diabetes risk, and actively works against insulin resistance to keep your metabolism healthy!
Allulose is a common alcohol sugar NNS that provides around 10% of the calories associated with sugar, while still providing a naturally sweet taste. The sweetness is rated at around 70% of sugar, and it’s amazingly digestively stable.
The vast majority of Allulose is passed through the body and comes out in the urine, which explains its incredibly low-calorie count. This compound is also rated safe and carries a GRAS certification to say they’re recognized as safe.
The benefits of this product also include mild antioxidant benefits and may support metabolic regularity surrounding insulin and carbohydrate sensitivity. These are great changes to support, especially when used to replace a problematic compound like sugar.
This includes a great range of safe intake, with side effects only appearing after roughly 1/3 of a cup. Needless to say, you shouldn’t be eating that much!
The behaviors and moderation that you practice around sugar alcohols are key – just like they are with any other food.
Sugar alcohols are inherently keto-friendly when they’re used to replace the worst examples of sugary carbs. They reduce the risk of diabetes, keep you in ketosis, and reduce the overall risk of over-eating if you use them properly.
The problems associated with sugar alcohols – including appetite change, over-eating, and digestive problems – are all the result of poor patterns of consumption. If you over-eat anything, you’ll see negative results.
Proper management of the intake of sugar alcohols is all it takes to control your insulin response and stay healthy. When the alternative is sugar, which is over-eaten to the point of metabolic dysfunction and death in our society, this seems like a reasonable ask!
It’s simple: sugar alcohols are keto-friendly if you’re using them in balance and moderation!