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Top 4 Natural, Low Carb Sweeteners…

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Last updated March 15, 2019 by Lisa Richards, CNC   Reviewed by Zia Sherrell, MPH.

Natural, low-carb sweeteners: stevia, xylitol, monk fruit, erythritol

Sugar can kill. It might seem rather dramatic, but sugar is a silent killer. Excessive sugar in the diet has long been acknowledged as a driving factor behind ill health.

The evidence is clear that sugar consumption is a key player in the obesity epidemic and in chronic diseases including heart disease and diabetes. It also plays a role in skin aging, acne, and your risk of developing cancer.

Many of us avoid thinking about the negative health consequences of sugar, because we don’t want to give up our sweet treats! But if you consider how harmful sugar is, you might change your mind.

Candida albicans loves nothing more than to feed on simple sugars, which allow it to spread, create biofilms, and build its cell walls. In fact, Candida may be to blame for your sugar cravings; the yeast needs to consume sugar to grow!

Processed foods often contain added sugar, not just in candies but in savory goods like pasta sauce, microwave dinners, and bacon. If your diet relies on a lot of these types of foods, you could inadvertently be consuming a massive amount of sugar.

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Added sugars make up nearly 20% of the total calorie intake of adults in the U.S. In children, the intake is still a staggering 14%. (1)

Thankfully there is now a whole range of low carbohydrate sweeteners available on the market. This means that, at least in the foods that you prepare yourself, you can avoid or restrict your sugar consumption.

Even if you indulge in the occasional sugary treat, using low carb sweeteners the majority of the time will make a worthwhile impact on your overall sugar consumption and health.

Low carb sweeteners are an excellent choice for most people, not just for those looking to combat gut issues like Candida. Read on to find out about four of the best low carb sweeteners on the market.

Stevia: Benefits, Uses, Side Effects

Stevia or Stevia Rebaudianais a small, sub-tropical plant that has over 90 different species. Stevia belongs to the daisy or Compositae family, as do lettuce, thistles, and sunflowers.

Stevia is an entirely natural sweetener, and calorie-free, which contributes to its growing popularity. In fact, of all the low-carb sweeteners, stevia is the one that the dominant players in the soft drink market are adding to diet versions of their products instead of sugar.

The history of stevia stretches back a long way. Native tribes in South America have used it for over 1500 years.  It was used for sweetening foods and for medicinal purposes in wound healing, supporting digestion, and protecting the skin. (2)

An Italian botanist ‘discovered’ the herb in 1887, and from then on, the use of this plant has increased exponentially and sparked the interest of commercial producers.

Benefits Of Stevia

In its purest form stevia has a low adverse effect profile. The natives who originally used stevia recognized its plethora of health benefits.

  • If you suffer from Candida or Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), you should eat a diet that is low in carbohydrates. Pathogens such as Candida cannot use stevia as a source of food, which means they will be less likely to overgrow.
  • There is potential to use stevia in pharmaceuticals or as preservatives in foods due to its potent antimicrobial properties. Stevia can control the microbes that cause dental caries along with nasties such as Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus.(3)
  • Stevia boasts both anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties. (4)
  • Your heart will be happier if you use stevia because it can help to regulate your blood pressure and lower your heart rate, while reducing your cholesterol levels and strengthening blood vessels. (5)
  • Stevia helps to stabilize blood sugar and decrease the level of insulin, acting as an anti-hyperglycemic agent in diabetics and healthy populations. It boosts glucose metabolism and fat absorption, thereby helping in weight control. (6)
  • Cellular damage, or oxidative stress caused by free radicals, is a major concern to health professionals. This damage is known to be a factor in developing atherosclerosis, cancer, asthma, diabetes, dementia, and other conditions.

Stevia can help your body to fight this free radical damage, thanks to the high levels of antioxidants that it contains. It has a variety of micronutrients including vitamin C and E, potassium, calcium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and folate. (7)

Comparative Sweetness Of Stevia

The term ‘Stevia’ encompasses three different products which vary in sweetness.

  1. Green leaf stevia
    An unprocessed, crude form of stevia. The leaves from the stevia plant are dried and either sold as they are or ground into a powder.  The leaves or the ground powder are almost 30 times sweeter than sugar, and they contain both sweetening compounds that are found in the stevia plant: rebaudioside and stevioside.
  2. Stevia extracts
    Once it was discovered that the sweetening compounds found in stevia could be extracted, this form of processed stevia became more popular.
    In the U.S. the sweetening compound rebaudioside A is the most commonly used, and this can be between 250 and 300 times sweeter than sugar.
  3. Altered stevia blends
    Some of these highly processed so-called ‘altered blends’ on the market are a massive 400 times sweeter than pure sugar. They also do not contain high amounts of the natural sweetening compounds; some have less than 1% rebaudioside A. (8)
    The main concern with altered stevia blends is that they employ chemical solvents such as acetonitrile in the process, which is toxic to the central nervous system. (9)

Uses Of Stevia

Stevia can be used just as you would use sugar, in baking or added to foods and drinks to sweeten them.

The fresh or dried leaves can be made into drinks such as lemonade. Lemon and stevia make a good combination as some people find stevia to taste bitter or metallic.

If you prefer, you can grind the leaves into a powder. This pure powder generally equals a half cup of sugar per tablespoon of stevia.

Stevia is much sweeter than sugar, so always start with less than you think you need.

You can make the stevia leaves into a syrup by adding a cup of hot water to a quarter cup of stevia leaves. Put this in the refrigerator to steep for a couple of days, before removing the leaves and then reducing the mixture until it is the desired consistency.

Baking with stevia presents some challenges, as sugar plays a vital role in the structure of cakes and other baked goods. Stevia is much less bulky than sugar. This means that you will need to use a third of a cup of a bulking agent (such as egg whites or yogurt) for every cup of sugar that you substitute. Experiment to see what works best in your particular recipe.

Sugar is responsible for making cakes light and airy. If you use stevia and a bulking agent, your finished cake will be denser and doughier. You can attempt to minimize this effect by using additional baking powder.

How To Buy Stevia

In the U.S. the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved the use of stevia leaves and the less processed and refined stevia extracts. They do not have generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status.

The stevia you see in the stores must be high-purity steviolglycosides, the only form of stevia that may be legally marketed in the United States, but this can be in liquid or powder form.

Try to find organic stevia to avoid any problems with undesirable fillers and additives.

Potential Side Effects Of Stevia

The FDA advises a maximum intake of stevia glycosides of 4 mg per kilogram of body weight. At these recommended levels, researchers have not found stevia to cause adverse effects.

Studies in laboratory animals have found some potential side-effects, but most of this research has now been invalidated.

Erythritol: Benefits, Uses, Side Effects

This is a popular sugar substitute that’s used in a wide range of foodstuffs. You have probably consumed it at some time if you enjoy wine, cheese, soy sauce, and other fermented foods, or if you prefer ‘diet’ choices over standard food options. It also occurs naturally in pears, watermelon, and some other fruits.

Like stevia, erythritol has been around for quite some time, discovered by John Stenhouse in 1848. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol, which is a name given to a specific group of organic compounds that, interestingly, are neither a sugar nor the sort of alcohol that leads to inebriation!

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Benefits Of Erythritol

  • Erythritol contains virtually no calories or carbohydrates.
  • Your body can absorb it, but because of the specific molecular structure, erythritol won’t be metabolized or broken down. Over 90% of the sugar alcohol in erythritol can be absorbed in your intestines, making it significantly easier to digest than other sugar alcohols like maltitol and sorbitol that can ferment and produce gas. (10)
  • Erythritol can protect your cells against oxidative damage because it is able to scavenge free radicals, specifically hydroxyl free radicals thereby protecting you from cardiovascular damage, hyperglycemia, and lipid peroxidation. Choosing erythritol over other sweeteners can potentially lower inflammation in your intestines, kidneys, and liver. (11)
  • Erythritol is an anti-hyperglycemic agent, that doesn’t cause spikes in blood sugar. This is particularly valuable to diabetics. The theory was tested by Japanese researchers back in 1994, and it was found that erythritol did not increase blood glucose, insulin, cholesterol, triacylglycerols or free fatty acids.
  • Erythritol does not cause problems for your dental health. Bacteria cannot break it down into acid that damages your teeth, unlike sugar which can cause tooth decay. Chewing gum, mouthwash, and toothpaste frequently contain erythritol because it doesn’t have the negative impact that sugar does on the oral cavity.

Streptococcus mutans is the bacterium responsible for most dental decay. Scientists have determined that erythritol can inhibit the rate of growth of this bacteria and that using erythritol results in less plaque formation and dental caries. (12)

Comparative Sweetness Of Erythritol

Unlike stevia that is far sweeter than sugar, erythritol is only 70-80% as sweet. This means that some people prefer it to the extremely sweet and artificial taste of other sweeteners. It is close in sweetness level to sugar and therefore is generally used on a like for like basis. (13)

Uses Of Erythritol

This natural sweetener is becoming more prevalent within processed, calorie-reduced foods, including ‘diet’ versions of candies, baked products, and prepared desserts and yogurt.

If you want to bake with erythritol, you should aim for no more than half a cup in your average recipe. Amounts higher than this can result in a dry and crystallized finished product. A drawback of erythritol is that it doesn’t caramelize, so your baked goods won’t have that fantastic chewy or dense consistency.

Eat your baked products on the same day if possible. A “cooling” effect has been noted when left for longer than this. The food begins to taste cool, in the same way that mints do. (14)

How To Buy Erythritol

Erythritol is generally available as a white powder that you can use like sugar, and also in a range of processed food products like chewing gum and dental care items.

You can also buy blends of erythritol and stevia.

Potential Side Effects Of Erythritol

  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
    Stomach upsets are possible if large amounts of erythritol are consumed. Gas, cramping, diarrhea and bloating are likely. (15)
    Some sufferers of Irritable Bowel Syndrome have reported that their symptoms of abdominal pain, cramping and gas are made worse when then consume erythritol.
  • Allergic reactions
    There was a report in 2000 of severe hives on a young female after she consumed erythritol. If you suffer from allergies, you should be aware of this, although this is a rare side-effect. (16)

Xylitol: Benefits, Uses, Side Effects

Like erythritol, xylitol is a sugar alcohol that acts on the taste receptors on your tongue that react to sweetness. It is a natural sweetener that is found in fruits and vegetables and is manufactured from birch trees or plant fiber. (17)

Benefits of Xylitol

  • Diabetic friendly
    Due to a very low glycemic index, there are no adverse effects on blood sugar or insulin as would be found with sugar, which make xylitol a good choice of sweetener for those with diabetes or metabolic problems.
  • Dentist approved
    Like erythritol, xylitol inhibits Streptococcus mutans. These bacteria need sugars to survive and are not able to thrive on xylitol. (18)
    Using chewing gum that contains xylitol was found to reduce harmful bacteria by up to 75% without affecting the good bacteria. This, in turn, can reduce dental decay by up to 85%. (19, 20)
    Xylitol can improve calcium absorption which will strengthen your teeth and bones, protecting against osteoporosis. (21)
  • Reduces yeast infections
    Xylitol has shown activity against Candida yeast, by preventing it from adhering to surfaces in the mouth and digestive system. This means that xylitol shows promise in treating oral or intestinal Candida infections. (22)
  • Anti-aging
    Your skin and connective tissues are made up of collagen, a protein. In rats, xylitol has been found to raise the rate of collagen production. An increase in collagen is beneficial for your skin, helps to protect against wrinkles and improves skeletal health, (23)

Uses Of Xylitol

Xylitol can be used in mouthwashes to improve your dental health.

It can be used in recipes in the same quantity as sugar but, like erythritol, it won’t caramelize and it has a tendency to crystallize. If you bake with xylitol, reduce the time in the oven as xylitol absorbs moisture which can lead to dry baked goods.

Comparative Sweetness Of Xylitol

Xylitol and sugar have a comparable level of sweetness, but xylitol has around 40% of the calories. Standard white sugar has 4 calories per gram and xylitol has 2.4 calories, which is more than erythritol that has just 0.24 calories per gram!

How To Buy Xylitol

Xylitol is available as a white, crystalline powder, either in pure form or mixed with other sweeteners. There is a wide range of dental products available that contain xylitol.

Potential Side Effects Of Xylitol

  • Dangerous for dogs
    Xylitol is toxic to dogs. In response to consuming xylitol, a dog will experience low blood sugar, and in extreme cases death. For a small dog, less than the amount of xylitol contained in one piece of chewing gum could be dangerous. (24)
  • IBS
    If you have this condition, it is generally best to avoid all sugar-alcohols including xylitol.
  • Digestive issues
    Generally, there are no problems with xylitol, even in those consuming as much as 1.5kg per month. However, some people report symptoms of digestive upset when consumed in high quantities. (25)

As the name might suggest, this natural sweetener is extracted from the Southeast Asian lo han guo or monk fruit. It has been used for centuries in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a cure for respiratory and digestive complaints.

In recent years, thanks to its zero calorie and zero carb profile, monk fruit extract has made its way on to the shelves of our stores.

Uses of Monk Fruit Extract

You can use monk fruit extract as you would any other sugar alternative in drinks and foods but, because it is extremely sweet, you need very little.

It can be used for baking. However, you will need to follow the same advice as for stevia and find a bulk agent to use with it. Egg whites, yogurt, and apple sauce are commonly used.

Comparative sweetness of Monk Fruit Extract

Like stevia, monk fruit extract is incredibly sweet, a massive 392 times sweeter than sugar. (26)

Benefits of Monk Fruit Extract

  • Doesn’t affect blood sugar
    Monk fruit itself will not affect blood sugar, but it’s prudent to ensure that the other ingredients in the food are also safe for diabetics.
  • Promotes weight loss
    With no calories and no carbs or fat, monk fruit extract can help you to keep your diet on track.
  • Anti-inflammatory properties
    Traditionally monk fruit has been used to relieve inflammation, and this effect was highlighted in a 2011 study on mice. (27)
  • Anti-cancer properties
    In animal models, mogroside (a glycoside from monk fruit) has potential as an anti-cancer agent as it prevented the development of colorectal and laryngeal cancers. (28)

How to buy Monk Fruit Extract

Monk fruit sweeteners are GRAS by the FDA.

You are unlikely to find fresh monk fruit in the stores because it ripens then rots very quickly.

Monk fruit sweeteners are available as either a liquid or as a crystal that resembles sugar. The color varies from off white to golden brown. There are also blends available with stevia and erythritol.

Potential side effects of Monk Fruit Extract

By labeling monk fruit as GRAS, the FDA agrees that there are very few adverse effects likely to occur.

Monk fruit is a member of the gourd family that contains cucumbers, melons, and pumpkin. If you are allergic to any of these, your risk of having an allergic reaction to monk fruit is higher.

You should seek medical attention if you use monk fruit and find yourself short of breath, have a rapid or weak pulse or any other sign of a serious allergic reaction.

No Excuse To Use Sugar!

Gone are the days of nasty tasting artificial sweeteners that came with a worrying adverse event profile. There are now fantastic, natural sweeteners that offer a healthy and practical alternative to sugar and even come with added health benefits.

Stevia and monk fruit sweeteners are plant-based and are GRAS by the FDA, so they are safe for most people to use.

Erythritol and xylitol bring benefits to your dental health as well as being good choices for baking.

All these sweeteners are low carb, and some are entirely calorie-free. You should experiment to find which sweetener you prefer. Some have an aftertaste that you may find unpleasant and are better used in some recipes than others.

You might find that the best solution for your taste is a blend of the sweeteners to mitigate the downsides and maximize the benefits! Enjoy discovering the perfect sweetener to satisfy your sweet tooth.

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