In the ongoing battle to reduce the intake of refined sugars and carbohydrates, sugar substitutes are making it easier for diabetics to control blood sugar levels through their daily diets. Improvements in both artificial and natural sweeteners are introducing a larger variety of sugar substitutes to the market. While artificial sweeteners continue to be a center of controversy - with reports alternately proving and refuting links to cancer¹, obesity and other ills - the choice and quality of natural sweeteners is improving.
Surprisingly, recent studies show natural sweeteners holding only 5 to 10 percent of the sugar substitute market. Taste, availability and cost have affected their penetration of the diabetic market. Until recently, the bitter aftertaste of stevia, the market leader in natural alternatives to artificial sweeteners, has slowed its uptake. A new stevia extract, Reb-A, is one of many natural sweeteners worth a try.
Reb-A (Rebaudioside-A) is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar. Besting other stevia extracts, Reb-A is not only calorie-less and low glycemic, but also lacks the aftertaste of other stevia sweeteners.
Luohanguo, an exotic green fruit grown in Southern China, is becoming more popular as drying and processing methods are developed to remove its strong flavors. Its sweetening component, mongrosides, makes it 300 times sweeter than sugar. Previously found in teas in Chinese shops, with its growing use in the management of diabetes and obesity, it is more widely available as a powdered sweetener.
3. Xylitol (Sugar Alcohols)
The benefits of Xylitol, a sugar alcohol derived from the fibers of fruits and vegetables, have long been recognized in other parts of the world. This low calorie and glycemic sweetener is a good sugar substitute for those with diabetes and obesity. It is widely used in toothpaste, gum and sweeteners in Europe and China where its ability to fight cavities by destroying harmful bacteria is valued.
Other sugar alcohols include lactitol, mannitol, maltitol. These sugar substitutes often appear in sugar-free goodies, including cookies and cakes. Read the ingredients carefully as they may contain other products that raise blood glucose levels, such as carbohydrates and flour.
Liquorice, an increasingly popular sugar substitute, should be avoided by diabetics. Its active ingredient, glycyrrhizic acid, raises low blood sugar levels and, thus, is a good treatment for hypoglycemia.
As with refined sugars, the use of sugar substitutes requires balancing carbohydrates in your diet. The type of sugar substitute is less important than how you manage your carbohydrate intake. Keep these tips from the American Diabetes Association in mind:
- In-and-Out Principle: If additional carbohydrates come into your diet, then other carbohydrates need to come out.
- Spread Out Your Carbs: Smoothing out your carbohydrate intake throughout the day will help avoid spikes in your blood glucose level. If you take insulin, carb intake must be coordinated with your insulin intake.
Be mindful that naturally sweetened sugar substitutes also introduce carbs. Fruit, honey, barley malt, molasses all require a balancing act. If you use a handful of dates to sweeten your chocolate pudding, the baked potato at dinner may have to go.
¹The National Cancer Institute states that there is no conclusive evidence that 'approved' artificial sweeteners cause cancer.