When I was first diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (t1d) in the late 90s, the only non-sugar sweeteners on the market were Equal and Splenda. But since then so many more products have come on the market, which is great news for diabetics like me – yay! Some of these are 100% natural, while others can be artificial. Here is a brief description of two of my favourite sweeteners and one that I am cautious of. There are of course many other sweetener options on the market so it’s best to do some research and find ones that suit you.
Stevia has recently become really popular as a ‘natural’ alternative to sugar as it comes from the stevia plant. It’s available in several forms including powder and liquid – my favourite is the caramel Stevia liquid which I use in my caramel panna cotta (look out for the recipe in my coming blogs).
Once I stumbled upon Stevia it was a game-changer for me and my diabetes and I now use it as my number one choice of sweetener. I find that it’s great for both sweet and savoury recipes. The only thing I have to be mindful of it its potency; Stevia is a lot sweeter tasting than regular sugar so you only need a tiny amount. If you use too much your food can taste awful. One cup of sugar is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of Stevia powder extract. My family doesn’t like the taste of Stevia, they think it leaves a strange aftertaste, but I love it and I find it only tastes funny if I use too much. I often have to make a recipe several times before I get the quantity right and then it tastes great.
There are several brands of Stevia available at most local grocery chains, so as far as cost and convenience go, they hit the mark, but I prefer to use the 100% pure Stevia extract, which is only available at health food stores. It is a bit more expensive, but I find it is cost effective in the long-run as I only need a small amount and a 100g container last me several months.
I also like to use Monk Fruit powder, especially for baking, as it has a really interesting caramel flavour which is really great especially in chocolate-based treats! What is Monk Fruit you ask? Monk Fruit is a naturally grown, green melon-like fruit grown in South East Asia. It’s 150-200 times sweeter than sugar and has 0.1g of sugar per serve (1/2 tsp) and 0.9g of carbs per, which is great for sweet treats.
I tend not to use this product though if I need a lot of sweetener as the carbs can add up, but I haven’t needed to use more than 4 tsp for most recipes, so I find it is a great alternative to sugar and other high GI sugar alternatives. I have found though, I need to double the quantity of Monk Fruit Powder compared with a sweetener such as Stevia.
I use 100% pure Monk Fruit powder which is only available at health food stores, but Monk Fruit powder has recently become popular at local supermarkets, but these can contain sugar alcohols like Erythritol and chemical compounds like Steviol Glycosides, which don’t impact blood glucose, but still, I prefer to use the all natural version where possible.
Maltitol & Sugar Alcohols
Maltitol is a sweetener often used in ‘sugar free’ products. I have found it is easy to assume that ‘sugar free’ means the product will not raise blood glucose levels (BGL), but the reality is that many do. While they don’t contain traditional cane sugar, many ‘sugar free’ products do contain sugar alcohols which can impact BGL.
What is a sugar alcohol you may ask. Well, sugar alcohols come from natural plant based products, but the carbohydrate in them are altered, so they do not have the same impact on BGL as traditional cane sugar. There are several forms of sugar alcohols including Maltitol, Xylitol and Erythritol. Some people claim the carbs in sugar alcohols don’t impact blood sugar at all, while other say they do. To add to the confusion, some manufacturers will include sugar alcohols (in whatever form they take ie Maltitol) in the nutritional table, while others do not. So it is difficult to know whether a product will infact impact BGL or not.
Maltitol is an example of a sugar alcohol and is typically a manufactured product that has less calories than sugar. Unfortunately, I discovered the impact of sugar alcohols on my BGL the hard way when I was on holiday with my husband. I was so excited to see sugar-free MinTies on the shelf at one of the local grocery stores, that I grabbed a packet and threw it into the trolley with gusto, thinking, yes, I finally get to relive my childhood! But boy was I wrong. I could barely wait to get out of the shop before I opened the packet and inhaled four of the sweet treats. Well, to my horror, an hour or so later I did a test and my BGL was 13mmol/L!!!!! What on earth??? I hadn’t eaten anything! I couldn’t believe I was so high. Then it dawned on me, the MinTies. I thought surely that couldn’t be right though, the packet said ‘sugar-free’. It was then that I put on my detective hat and read the back of the packet – well, sure enough it didn’t contain sugar, but I noticed an ingredient called Maltitol which I’d never seen before. I searched it online and was horrified to see that it did in fact affect blood glucose, just not as much as normal sugar.
Having learnt my lesson the hard way and now knowing the effect that sugar alcolohs such as Maltitol have on my BGL, I always check the back of every ‘sugar free’ product before I buy it to make sure I know exactly what I’m eating. I not only read the nutritional table but the list of ingredients, this way if a manufacturer does not include the sugar alcohol in the nutritional table, I can still see if it’s included. If a product does contain a sugar alcohol, I either don’t buy it if I can avoid it, or I give myself some insulin to counteract it. This can be tricky too however, as the carbs in sugar alcohols impact BGL less than cane sugar, so it can be difficult to know exactly how much insulin to use. The best information I have come across to date on sugar alcohols, is from the University of California which outlines the impact of the carbohydrates on BGL and how to calculate the total carb value.