Is Sugar Alcohol Keto? And Is It Good for You?
Since the ketogenic diet restricts carb intake, dieters consider alternative sweeteners such as sugar alcohols to satisfy their sweet cravings. If you are one of them, you may have quite a few questions.
Are sugar alcohols keto-friendly? How good are they for your overall health and well-being?
Let’s look into keto and sugar alcohols. We’ll learn what sugar alcohols are, explore their benefits and drawbacks, and learn the best practices for incorporating them into the ketogenic lifestyle.
What Are Sugar Alcohols?
Sugar alcohols, also known as polyols, are a type of carbohydrate. Despite what their name implies, they are neither sugar nor alcohol. Instead, they are a hybrid of the two – sugar molecules with an attached alcohol group. With the exception of the alcohol group, their structure is similar to sugar.
Sugar alcohols occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables. However, most sugar alcohols within commercially available packaged goods are produced through chemical processes. Food manufacturers use them to sweeten their products without adding extra calories to them.
Polyols provide a sweet taste similar to sugar but are not completely absorbed by the body. This results in fewer calories and a lower impact on blood sugar levels compared to normal sugar. Because of that, they are attractive substitutes for sugar for people with diabetes and those following low-carb diets such as the keto diet.
Types of sugar alcohols
At the moment, 8 types of sugar alcohols are approved for human consumption. They are erythritol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH), isomalt, lactitol (milk sugar compound), mannitol, maltitol, sorbitol, and xylitol.
Out of the 8, these are the most common sugar alcohols in food manufacturing:
- Erythritol: Erythritol occurs naturally in some fruits and fermented foods. It is the sugar alcohol keto followers prefer as it has a very low glycemic index and is nearly calorie-free. As opposed to regular table sugar, which contains 4 calories per gram, erythritol only has 0.24 calories per gram. Due to its mild sweetness and minimal effect on blood sugar levels, it is popular in diabetes and keto-friendly products.
- Xylitol: Xylitol another keto-friendly sugar alcohol. It’s derived from birch wood or extracted from corn cobs and has a similar sweetness to sugar. Xylitol provides only about 2.4 calories per gram, which is significantly lower than regular sugar. It is often used in dental products.
- Sorbitol: Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol found naturally in fruits and is also produced commercially from glucose. It has a moderate sweetness and provides about 2.6 calories per gram. Therefore, sorbitol is commonly used as a sugar substitute in various food products, including sugar-free candy and sugar-free gums.
- Maltitol: Maltitol is derived from maltose, a type of sugar. It offers a sweetness similar to sugar but only contains 2.1 calories per gram. It has a pleasant taste and texture, due to which it’s often found in sugar-free or reduced-sugar candies, chocolates, baked goods, and other confectionery items.
Due to their low caloric content, the modern diet contains many sugar alcohols that can help lower sugar intake. However, erythritol, xylitol, sorbitol, and maltitol are the most common sugar alcohols as they taste the most similar to table sugar.
Glycemic Index of Sugar Alcohols
The glycemic index (GI) is a value used to measure how quickly a carbohydrate-containing food raises blood sugar levels compared to pure glucose, which has a GI of 100. The lower the GI, the less it will raise blood sugar levels.
There are 3 glycemic index ratings:
- Low GI: 55 or less
- Medium GI: 56–69
- High GI: 70 or above
Foods with a high GI value cause rapid blood sugar spikes, whereas foods with a low GI value have a slower, more gradual impact on blood glucose levels.
All sugar alcohols have a low GI. However, the exact glycemic index of each sugar alcohol varies depending on its type. Erythritol, for example, has a glycemic index of 1 and minimal impact on blood glucose levels. Sorbitol and xylitol have glycemic indexes of 4 and 12, respectively. Meanwhile, maltitol has a much higher glycemic index than other sugar alcohols – around 35.
For reference, the glycemic index of white table sugar is 65, which is considered medium.
Are Sugar Alcohols Keto-Friendly?
Sugar alcohols are generally considered compatible with the ketogenic diet. Since the keto diet aims to limit carbohydrate intake to induce and maintain a state of ketosis, sugar alcohols can be useful for those following this low-carb diet, especially during moments when they have a sweet tooth.
Polyols generally have a lower glycemic index compared to regular sugar. They provide sweetness without contributing a significant amount of net carbohydrates. That’s because they are metabolized differently than table sugar in the body.
While regular table sugar is broken down and absorbed, sugar alcohols are not fully absorbed in the small intestine. Instead, they undergo partial fermentation in the large intestine. This limited absorption and fermentation process reduce their impact on blood sugar levels and insulin response.
Sugar alcohols don’t require insulin for metabolism. Therefore, they generally have a minimal effect on insulin secretion. This makes them beneficial for those on a keto diet, as it can help maintain low insulin levels to promote fat burning and ketone production.
Counting Carbs and Net Carbs
When speaking of the ketogenic diet, two terms are used in reference to carbohydrates – total carbohydrates and net carbohydrates. Total carbs refer to all types of carbohydrates one consumes daily. Meanwhile, net carbs refer to only the carbs the body uses for energy.
To calculate your net carb count, you need to subtract dietary fiber and sugar alcohols from total carbs. The rationale behind this calculation is that dietary fiber is not digested and does not significantly affect blood sugar levels, while sugar alcohols have minimal impact or are not fully absorbed.
So, are sugar alcohols safe, then?
Well, hang on.
Things are a bit more complex.
Most keto dieters opt not to count them as total carbs. However, others deduct a certain percentage of them instead. That’s because, depending on their glycemic index, a small amount may still be absorbed, especially when it comes to sugar alcohols with higher glycemic values, such as sorbitol and maltitol.
So, should you subtract sugar alcohols from total carbs or not? Will they affect ketosis or not?
That depends on how sensitive your body is to them. The most accurate way to assess if sugar alcohols raise your blood glucose levels is by using a blood sugar meter. However, many keto dieters can also assess that from anecdotal experience by observing how their body feels and responds to certain sugar alcohols.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal preference, individual tolerance, and the specific sugar alcohol being consumed. Maintaining ketosis is a highly individual process, so it’s essential to experiment, monitor your own body’s response, and adjust your carbohydrate intake accordingly.
Potential Benefits and Drawbacks of Sugar Alcohols on Keto
When following the keto diet, sugar alcohols can help satisfy cravings for sweetness without derailing your low-carb goals. Yet, it’s vital to keep in mind that, as with any nutrient, they have benefits and drawbacks that can affect your health goals and overall well-being.
Sugar alcohols offer several potential benefits that make them a great option for keto dieters, such as:
- No blood sugar spikes: Sugar alcohol generally has a minimal effect on blood glucose levels and can help maintain ketosis. It has a lower glycemic index compared to regular sugar. Therefore, it has a smaller impact on insulin response and can help prevent spikes in blood sugar levels.
- Reduced calorie intake: They serve as low-calorie sweeteners and provide sweetness without contributing as many calories as sugar.
- Improved palatability: Sugar alcohols can help satisfy a sweet tooth without derailing your keto goals. They provide sweetness without adding excessive carbohydrates, allowing for greater dietary variety and enjoyment.
- Dental health benefits: Unlike natural sugars, polyols are not fermented by oral bacteria. This helps reduce the risk of tooth decay and cavities. Bacteria in the mouth feed on sugar and produce acids that can erode tooth enamel. Meanwhile, varieties such as xylitol have been shown to inhibit the growth of oral bacteria and reduce plaque formation, promoting better oral hygiene. This is why xylitol is a popular sugar alcohol in sugar-free chewing gum and dental products.
It’s also essential to consider the potential drawbacks of incorporating sugar alcohols into your ketogenic lifestyle. This will help you make informed choices that support your dietary goals and overall well-being.
Here are some possible issues you may experience:
- Digestive issues: Some individuals may experience digestive discomfort, including gas, bloating, or diarrhea, when consuming large amounts of polyols. This can vary depending on the type of sugar alcohol and individual tolerance; for example, individuals with irritable bowel syndrome may be more affected. It’s important to listen to your body and adjust your intake accordingly.
- Varied impact on ketosis: While sugar alcohol generally has a minimal impact on ketosis, not all sugar alcohols are the same, and individual responses may vary. Some people experience that certain sugar alcohols, particularly those with higher glycemic indexes, affect their ketosis levels. It’s crucial to monitor your own body’s response and make the adjustments needed to maintain ketosis.
- Potential for overconsumption: Sugar alcohols can be satisfying and serve as great sugar alternatives. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that they still contribute to calories and carbohydrates. Their overconsumption can hinder weight loss or stall your progress.
As with any aspect of the keto diet, individual responses and preferences may vary. Some people may choose to avoid sugar alcohol altogether, while others may have no issues. It’s important to listen to your body, monitor your ketosis levels, and make adjustments when necessary.
Best Practices for Incorporating Sugar Alcohols on Keto
While sugar alcohols may be beneficial, it’s paramount to keep your keto goals and health in mind. These guidelines will help you make informed decisions, optimize your carbohydrate intake, and enjoy sweet treats while staying on track with your ketogenic lifestyle.
1. Choose low-glycemic options
Opt for varieties with a low glycemic index. One sugar alcohol to consider is erythritol. It’s generally considered the best sugar alcohol, and xylitol is a close second. They both have minimal impact on blood glucose levels and are generally considered more suitable for maintaining ketosis than other sugar alcohols.
2. Read labels and calculate net carbs
Pay close attention to food labels and calculate net carbohydrates by subtracting the total grams of dietary fiber and sugar alcohols from the total carbohydrate content. This will give you a more accurate measure of the carbohydrates that affect blood sugar levels.
In addition, the food label will help you identify artificial sweeteners that aren’t as healthy. For example, aspartame has a glycemic index of zero and is among the popular low-calorie sweeteners in many low-carb, low-calorie, and sugar-free foods. However, research indicates that it has a wide range of possible health risks.
Another harmful ingredient is high-fructose corn syrup. It, too, has a low glycemic index. However, its high consumption can lead to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and other health problems.
3. Moderation is key
While sugar alcohols have fewer calories and can be useful for adding sweetness to your keto diet, moderation is essential. Overconsumption can potentially disrupt ketosis or cause digestive discomfort. It’s important to find a balance and monitor your body’s response to determine the right amount for your needs.
4. Consider personal tolerance
Everyone’s body reacts differently to sugar alcohol. If you experience digestive issues or notice any negative effects, it may be best to reduce or avoid sugar alcohol altogether.
5. Prioritize whole foods
Sugar alcohol can be a helpful addition to your keto diet. Nonetheless, it’s important to focus on consuming a variety of whole, unprocessed foods. If you consume sugar alcohols or artificially sweetened products excessively, it may hinder your progress or lead to a less balanced and nutrient-rich diet.
6. Try alternative sweeteners
Sugar is just pure carbs. The body absorbs coconut sugar slower than regular sugar; however, it’s high in fructose. While maple syrup has fewer calories than honey, both aren’t keto-friendly. So, what are your options?
Various natural sweeteners can serve as sugar replacements. Some keto-friendly ideas include:
- Stevia: Available as a liquid or powder, stevia has almost no calories and can be a great sugar alternative for sweetening foods and drinks.
- Monk fruit sweetener: A natural sweetener that derives from the Chinese monk fruit, it contains mogrosides – compounds that are up to 250 times sweeter than sugar.
- Allulose: Derived from compounds in wheat and certain fruits, this sweetener has no glycemic index or net carb content because the body excretes it entirely.
7. Maintain good oral hygiene
Sugar alcohols are less likely to contribute to cavities and tooth decay than sugar but don’t take your oral health for granted, and don’t use xylitol chewing gum as a replacement for adequate dental hygiene. Brush your teeth regularly, floss, and visit your dentist for routine check-ups.
Individual Considerations and Consultation
When incorporating sugar alcohols into the ketogenic diet, it’s vital to remember that each person is unique, and their health can affect how suitable sugar alcohol intake is for them. Here are some factors to be aware of:
- Diabetes: People with diabetes need to be cautious when consuming polyols. While they have minimal effect on blood sugar levels, it’s crucial to monitor blood glucose levels closely to prevent unexpected spikes and negative side effects. In addition, working with a healthcare professional can help you to determine the appropriate amount and whether or not these sugar substitutes fit into your diabetes management plan.
- Digestive disorders: Digestive discomfort, such as gas, bloating, or diarrhea, is not uncommon when consuming sugar alcohols, especially sorbitol or maltitol. So, if you have digestive disorders or are prone to gas or bloating, sugar alcohol may exacerbate these issues.
- Medications and interactions: Sugar alcohols may interact with certain medications or health conditions. Therefore, if you have any underlying health conditions or take medications regularly, consult with your healthcare provider to ensure that sugar alcohol intake is safe and appropriate for you.
- Personalized guidance: What works for one person may not work for another. Personalized guidance based on your health history, dietary preferences, and goals can help you remain on track with your ketogenic diet.
Common Keto Sugar Alcohol FAQs
Do sugar alcohols count on keto?
Sugar alcohols do count on the ketogenic diet, but the impact they may have on your overall carbohydrate intake may vary. They aren’t fully absorbed by the body and don’t have the same effect on blood sugar levels as table sugar.
When counting carbohydrates on the keto diet, you can subtract sugar alcohols from the total carbohydrate count to get net carbs. These represent the carbohydrates that significantly impact blood sugar levels and ketosis. Note, however, that different types of sugar alcohols affect blood sugar in varying degrees.
Do you count sugar alcohols as carbs?
Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates, but they are metabolized differently and have a smaller impact on blood sugar levels compared to white sugar.
Therefore, some people choose to subtract them from the total carbohydrate count to calculate net carbs. If you follow this approach, it’s best to focus on sugar alcohols with a low glycemic index, such as erythritol or xylitol.
However, when it comes to varieties with higher glycemic indexes, it may be better to count them as part of the total carbohydrate intake. Essentially, that depends on individual preferences, tolerance, and the specific sugar alcohol being consumed.
Do sugar alcohols cancel out carbs?
Sugar alcohols do not cancel out carbs entirely. While they are classified as carbohydrates, they have a different metabolic effect compared to normal sugar. They are not fully absorbed by the small intestine and have a minimal effect on blood sugar levels and insulin response.
However, polyols still contribute calories and can have a mild effect on blood sugar, although generally less significant than regular sugar.
Sugar alcohols can be valuable for individuals following a ketogenic diet who want to have a sweet treat now and then without compromising their low-carb diet goals. However, it’s essential to consider individual factors, benefits, and drawbacks, when incorporating them into your diet.
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