Sugar is highly addictive as it activates certain addiction receptors in the brain that are activated when we consume drugs. So, when you eat sugar, you want just more and it is hard to limit its consumption. Therefore, if you want to keep your blood glucose level stable, sugar substitutes can help, if you choose the right one.
A sugar substitute tastes like sugar but has fewer or no calories. There are distinguished several types of substitutes:
Natural sweeteners – substances used instead of sugar, such as honey, corn syrup or agave nectar, to sweeten your food. They are slightly sweeter than sugar, so you can use a little bit less of them and get the same sweetness. However, they are not a good option for diabetics, as 82% of honey is sugar and agave nectar has up to 90% of liquid fructose.
Artificial sweeteners – substances derived from plants or herbs, and even sugar itself, that have more intense sweetness than sugar. They are also called nonnutritive sweeteners as they contain few or no calories or nutrients at all. Most of them are not metabolized, which is why they affect blood sugar to a very small extent if at all and can be a good option for people with type 2 diabetes. Among them are:
- Aspartame. It is 200 times as sweet as sugar with a zero glycemic index and just 1 carb per packet. So, it doesn’t raise blood glucose levels but tends to lose some of its sweetness when heated.
- Sucralose. It is 600 times as sweet as sugar with a zero glycemic index and 1 g of carbohydrate per teaspoon, which can be used in both hot and cold foods. It is the sweetest of all artificial sweeteners and can affect blood glucose if a large quantity is assumed at a time.
- Saccharin. It is 300-500 times as sweet as sugar with a glycemic index of zero and 3 g of carbs per packet. It doesn’t lose its sweetness neither in hot nor in cold foods and drinks.
- Acesulfame potassium. It is 300 times as sweet as sugar with a zero glycemic index and 1 carb unit. It has no effect on blood glucose and remains stable when heated. However, it may leave a slightly bitter aftertaste and is therefore often mixed with other sweeteners.
- Stevia. It is 200-300 times as sweet as sugar, with a zero glycemic index and 3 g of carbohydrates per packet. It doesn’t offer quite the intensity of sweetness as other sweeteners and is often mixed with other sugar substitutes to reduce bitterness. Though, it remains stable when heated.
Nutritive sweeteners, also known as polyols or sugar alcohols – substances extracted from natural fibers of fruits and vegetables, which have a chemical structure similar to that of alcohol and sugar, but not affecting the body like alcohol. They contain about 50% as many calories as sugar per gram and provide energy when consumed. Examples include: Xylitol, Mannitol, Sorbitol, Isomalt, Erythritol, Maltitol.
They can have some effect on blood glucose, albeit lower than sugar. The impact may vary from a glycemic index of 13 for Xylitol to 9 for Sorbitol. Others, like Mannitol, border on zero. Doses of 10-15 grams per day are tolerated well, but consuming higher doses may cause diarrhea and stomach pain.
So, what sugar substances are best for diabetics?
Natural substances are essentially identical to regular sugar when it comes to blood glucose impact.
Artificial sweeteners are generally safe, stabilize blood glucose and help counter diabetes-related complications, but have a bitter aftertaste.
Sugar alcohols don’t leave aftertaste like artificial sweeteners, but are less sweet; contain calories and can be partially digested in the intestine; provoke side effects.
So, it is better to see your diabetes specialist for individual advice if you decide to use sugar substitutes.