If you’re on a Keto or low-carb diet—or just generally appalled by the sugar content of most holiday treats—there’s a sweet solution: natural, sugar-free substitutes that let you indulge in cookies, pies, and cakes without upsetting blood sugar or blowing your daily carb count through the roof. Here’s a roundup of the four best sugar alternatives, plus recipes for low-carb, grain-free, no-sugar treats that can sweeten your celebration without sacrificing flavor.
4 Best Sugar Alternatives
This sugar alcohol naturally occurs in small amounts in strawberries, raspberries, and other fruits and vegetables, and is most abundant in birch tree bark. It’s sold as a white crystalline powder that’s similar in appearance and sweetness to white sugar, but has 40 percent fewer calories and a very low glycemic index of 10 (compared to white sugar at 68). Because the body doesn’t metabolize xylitol as a sugar, it has no effect on insulin levels, and some studies show that it can also prevent tooth decay and possibly improve bone and tooth health. It may also help control Candida and prevent ear infections.
Like other sugar alcohols, xylitol can cause bloating, gas, and flatulence, and may have a laxative effect in large quantities. Start small to let your body get used to it, and limit consumption to 50 grams per day. And while it’s completely safe for humans, xylitol is toxic to dogs, so keep it in a pooch-proof container, and don’t let pets sample your baked treats.
How to buy it. Though you can find birch-derived xylitol, which is more expensive, it’s often derived from corn, which can contain GMOs. Look for organic or non-GMO xylitol, and be sure it’s free of fillers or other additives. We like Xlear XyloSweet.
How to use it. Unlike most concentrated sweeteners, xylitol bakes well, adds bulk to recipes, and can be used as a 1:1 substitute for white sugar. To avoid any potential digestive distress, it’s best combined with a concentrated sweetener such as monk fruit or stevia.
Like xylitol, erythritol is a sugar alcohol that naturally occurs in grapes, pears, mushrooms, and other fruits and vegetables. It’s made commercially by fermenting glucose from corn, and has a clean, neutral flavor and color with a very low glycemic index of 1. Erythritol doesn’t impact blood sugar or insulin levels, and because it’s not metabolized by bacteria in the mouth, it won’t cause tooth decay and may even promote remineralization of teeth. Unlike other sugar alcohols, erythritol is mostly absorbed into the bloodstream before it reaches the colon, and appears to resist fermentation by gut bacteria. So it’s less likely to cause digestive distress.
How to buy it. Because erythritol is made with corn, look for organic or non-GMO products in powdered form. Some products contain added ingredients, such as oligosaccharides or stevia, to increase its sweetness; 100 percent erythritol products are also available. We like NOW Real Food Organic Erythritol.
How to use it. Erythritol can be used in baking or any kind of cooking. In general, use 11/3 cups of erythritol for each cup of sugar. To improve flavor and minimize any possibility of digestive distress, combine it with other sweeteners such as monk fruit or stevia.
Derived from a plant native to South America, stevia contains compounds called steviosides and rebaudiosides that are about 300 times sweeter than sugar. It’s calorie-free, and has no impact on blood sugar or insulin levels. Though some early research suggested that stevia could contribute to infertility and cancer, these studies have been debunked, and new studies suggest that compounds in stevia may actually protect against some types of cancer. Other studies show that stevia lowers insulin and glucose levels and may normalize cholesterol.
How to buy it. Though the raw, powdered herb is the most natural form, it has a bitter taste and slightly licorice flavor, and isn’t good for baking. Concentrated forms of stevia like Reb-A have a cleaner flavor and less aftertaste. Make sure the form you buy is organic or non-GMO. We like Wisdom Natural, SweetLeaf Liquid Stevia SweetDrops.
How to use it. While stevia is heat- stable and is ideal in puddings, ice cream, or smoothies, it’s harder to use in baking because it lacks bulk. Combine it with erythritol or xylitol to add bulk, and use a ratio of about 1/2 teaspoon stevia for 1 cup of sugar.
4. Monk fruit
This super-natural sweetener from the lo han guo plant is made by crushing the fruit to extract its sweet compounds, called mogrosides. Monk fruit has a clean, sweet flavor, without a bitter aftertaste. But like stevia, it’s calorie-free and doesn’t impact blood sugar or insulin. Lo han guo has been used for thousands of years in Chinese medicine, and some studies suggest that the plant has antibacterial activities and can fight oral bacteria and Candida.
How to buy it. You’ll find monk fruit in a variety of forms, from pure concentrates to powders that combine monk fruit with erythritol or other bulking agents. If you’re buying monk fruit mixed with other ingredients, look for organic or non-GMO versions. We like Lakanto Monkfruit Sweetener with Erythritol.
How to use it. Monk fruit is heat- stable and can be used in any kind of cooking and baking. Like stevia, it lacks bulk, so it’s best combined with erythritol or xylitol. Or use a powdered form that has added bulking agents. The amount you’ll use in recipes varies depending on what product you’re using; for pure monk fruit extracts, use 1 teaspoon to replace a cup of sugar.