Variety of natural sweeteners
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Glycemic Index of Sweeteners: Which are the Best Choices and Which to Avoid

With so many sweetener options on the market, it can be so difficult to know which one is best for your needs and your health. 

Variety of natural sweeteners

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This article will walk you through all your options when it comes to sweeteners, including the glycemic index of sweeteners and which ones are best and worst for blood sugar. By the end of this article, you will be able to make an educated sweetener choice next time you go to the grocery store.

What are sweeteners?

Sweeteners are pretty much exactly what they sound like: substances that add sweetness to your foods and drinks. 

They can be added during processing to packaged foods, or you can add them to your foods and beverages to your personal taste.

Types of sweeteners

There are many different sweeteners, but they can be organized into a few main categories.

First, you have natural sweeteners that contain sugar. These include things like table sugar, coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, and molasses. 

Next, there are also artificial sweeteners that contain zero sugar and zero calories. This category includes those colored packets you see in restaurants and coffee shops, which can include saccharin (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda), and aspartame (Equal/Nutrasweet).

A third category of sweeteners is sugar alcohols, which are naturally occurring and not fully absorbed by the body. This means that they provide fewer calories than regular sugars. The most common sugar alcohols available to you to purchase include erythritol and xylitol.

Finally, we have sugar-free sweeteners that are naturally derived but don’t fit into the other categories. These include stevia, allulose, and monk fruit.

How to use sweeteners

Tea sweetened with honey

Sweeteners can be used in the same ways as regular sugar in order to sweeten your foods and beverages. However, you may not have the same success using certain sweeteners in place of others for certain recipes.

You have probably noticed that there is a difference between using crystalized sweeteners versus liquid sweeteners. Recipes using liquid sweeteners will call for less liquid elsewhere in the recipe, or perhaps will require you to even add in bulking agents.

Also, many of these sweeteners have vastly different levels of sweetness. This means that using one in place of another may lead to a dish that is much sweeter or maybe even less sweet than you aimed for. 

Some sweeteners may even have an aftertaste, like stevia, so you will want to experiment to find the one that suits you best.

Additionally, many of these sweeteners are not suitable for baking, and some might even re-crystallize when cooled or frozen.

Since each of these sweeteners mentioned above has different properties, your best bet is to choose recipes that are tried and true to utilize the specific sweetener you want to use. 

However, many times you will want to adapt a recipe to use a different sweetener. When doing so, remember Google is your friend! You can simply search for “how to substitute A for B when baking” or search for a recipe using that sweetener to compare proportions to the recipe you want to adapt.

Impact of sweeteners on health

Type 4 Diabetes, glucose meter and sugar cubes against the pink background

Depending on the sweetener you choose, there could be an impact on your health.

All of the sweeteners in this article have been approved for use by the FDA and are considered safe to consume in normal amounts.

Due to not being absorbed completely, the sugar alcohols get fermented by your gut bacteria and can cause some digestive distress like gas or bloating. However, erythritol is better tolerated than other sugar alcohols, and some people are able to handle more than others. 

The major impact that sweeteners can have is on your blood sugar, but this depends on the sweetener you choose. People with diabetes should pay attention to how they respond to certain sweeteners to ensure they do not experience spikes in blood glucose levels so they can have better health outcomes.

Glycemic index (GI) and sweeteners

You can estimate how a sweetener will impact your blood sugar by looking at its glycemic index (GI) score. The GI is essentially a numbered ranking of how strongly a food can impact your blood sugar, with a score of 0 having no impact to a score of 100 having the strongest impact.

Knowing the glycemic index of sweeteners can help you make better decisions for blood sugar control and allows you to compare each sweetener to one another.

However, it is important to note that the GI is based on how your blood sugar responds if you eat a specific amount of only that food. This means that different portion sizes and any other foods the sweetener is eaten with are not taken into account when looking at the glycemic index score.

This is important because eating sweeteners with fiber, protein, and healthy fats will slow down your digestion and absorption, leading to slower increases in blood sugar. And eating a smaller amount should also lead to smaller increases. Additionally, there are also individual differences in blood sugar regulation.

This goes to show that glycemic index is not the end-all be-all when it comes to how your blood sugar will be impacted. If you need to pay attention to your blood sugar, it is best to test your blood glucose levels before and after eating a food/meal to better understand how it impacts you as an individual.

Low GI sweeteners

Sweetener in a wooden bowl

Low glycemic foods are given a score of 55 or below. 

Allulose

Allulose has a GI score of 0. This means that it has no impact on blood sugar. In fact, allulose actually has anti-diabetic properties that help to keep blood sugar lower, and has been shown to have no negative health effects.

Aspartame (Nutrasweet/Equal)

Aspartame also has a score of 0 of the GI. This is an artificial sweetener that contains zero calories or sugar, which gives it zero impact on blood sugar levels. Despite some claims that aspartame is bad for you based on rat studies, there is not significant evidence of harm in humans.

Aspartame is a combination of two amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. This means that people with phenylketonuria (PKU) should avoid aspartame. 

Erythritol

Erythritol is another option for a sweetener with no impact on blood sugar, with a GI of 0. This sweetener is widely used in foods nowadays, and you may be able to find it in your grocery store baking aisle. 

As a sugar alcohol, some people report some digestive discomfort, however erythritol is considered to have high digestive tolerance for the majority of people.

Monk fruit

Another 0 GI score is found with monk fruit sweetener. This sweetener contains no calories or sugar and will therefore not impact blood sugar levels.

The sweetness of monk fruit comes from special compounds called mogrosides, which taste sweet and have antioxidant properties.

Stevia

Stevia plant with wooden spoons

Stevia is another sweetener with a GI score of 0. This sweetener is calorie free and sugar free, and is actually connected to reductions in blood sugar levels

One downside of stevia is that many people do not enjoy its bitter aftertaste. Some stevia products may also contain other sweeteners, so be sure to read the label to ensure you are getting a product with 100% stevia.

Saccharin (Sweet’N Low)

Saccharin, often found in the pink packet, also has a GI score of 0 and does not contain calories. This sweetener is extremely sweet, but some find it has a strong aftertaste. You may find saccharin mixed with other sweeteners, so be cautious and read the label to be safe.

Sucralose (Splenda)

The final sweetener with a score of 0 on the GI scale is sucralose. Sucralose does not impact blood sugar levels and is considered safe for people with diabetes.

Xylitol

Xylitol has a GI score of 7, and contains 2.4 calories per gram as opposed to the typical 4 calories per gram that carbs contain. This sweetener is known to benefit dental health and has a minimal impact on blood sugar. 

Larger intakes of xylitol are associated with gastrointestinal issues, and it is toxic to dogs. So be careful and keep your intake low and ensure you keep it in a high cabinet away from your furry friends.

Agave nectar

Agave has a GI score of 17, which is the lowest for the natural sweeteners. Despite the lower GI score, you should still limit your intake of agave since it is high in fructose. When consumed in excess, fructose is connected to the development of diabetes and obesity.

Maple syrup

Maple syrup has a GI score of 54, and contains about 52 calories and 12 grams of sugar per tablespoon. In addition, it also contains small amounts of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.

Despite having a lower GI score, it is on the higher end of the low category. This means you should proceed with caution and stick to smaller portions to not get surprised by blood sugar increases.

Coconut sugar

Coconut sugar also has a GI score of 54, and also contains about 30 calories and 7 grams of sugar per 2 tsp. While similar to table sugar, it is lower on the GI and also contains some minerals, including potassium.

Molasses

Molasses has a GI score of 55, and contains 58 calories and 15 grams of sugar per tablespoon. It also contains minerals such as iron, calcium, potassium, manganese, and magnesium. 

This sweetener is a little different from the others, in that its flavor is a mix of sweet and bitter, and it has a powerful flavor. This is probably not a sweetener you would want to add to every dish.

Medium GI sweeteners

Honey on bread

Medium glycemic foods have a range of 56 to 69 on the glycemic index.

Honey

Honey has a medium GI score of 58, and contains 64 calories and 17 grams of sugar per tablespoon. In addition to being sweet, honey is known for its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. 

While having a medium glycemic index score, honey actually has a higher glycemic load score than table sugar. This means that a normal portion of honey (1 tbsp) will increase blood sugar more quickly than a normal portion of table sugar (2 tsp).

Table sugar 

Table sugar has a medium GI score of 65. This is likely the highest GI sweetener you are able to purchase at your local grocery store. As you probably expected, out of all of the options listed so far, table sugar has the highest impact on blood sugar.

High GI sweeteners

High glycemic foods are given a score of 70 to 100. Sweeteners in this category would include maltodextrin and dextrose (aka pure glucose). 

You are likely not going to purchase these in a store, but they are often used in packaged highly processed foods. Look at food labels to ensure you’re not consuming foods that contain these sweeteners often, as these will have the largest impact on your blood sugar.

Best sweeteners for blood sugar balance

Monk fruits in a shell with one cut in half

The best sweeteners for better blood sugar control are those with lower GI scores. 

Those sweeteners that will not impact your blood sugar can be used without concern, including:

  • Allulose (GI of 0)
  • Aspartame (GI of 0)
  • Erythritol (GI of 0)
  • Monk Fruit (GI of 0)
  • Stevia (GI of 0)
  • Saccharin (GI of 0)
  • Sucralose (GI of 0)

Still on the lower side of the GI scale, you could also choose xylitol with a GI score of 7 to ensure better blood sugar control.

You can experiment with these diabetes-friendly sweeteners to find out which one best suits your preferences and your needs. They come in at various price ranges and may not be suitable for every recipe depending on their properties, so some of these may not be useful for you.

While the natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, coconut sugar, and molasses have some beneficial vitamins and minerals, you should not rely on these sweeteners to obtain these nutrients in your diet as the levels are not very high. In terms of blood sugar, these all have higher GI scores and thus would have higher impacts on blood sugar than the ones listed above. 

Remember, you can still have sweeteners with medium or high GI scores, but you may want to include a source of fiber, protein, and/or fat to help slow the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream. This will help buffer the impact of those higher GI sweeteners and keep your blood sugar lower.

The bottom line

Honey or maple syrup in a wooden spoon

There are many types of sweeteners, all with different levels of sweetness and properties.

But is there a sweetener that is considered to be the best or healthiest option?

Knowing the glycemic index of sweeteners can help you to make better choices when it comes to blood sugar balance.

The sweeteners that are least likely to raise your blood sugar include artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols like erythritol, and naturally-derived sweeteners such as allulose, monk fruit, and stevia.

In the end, the best sweetener will depend on your personal preferences and needs. Simply choose the one that you like best and use sparingly.

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