Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and if you’re like most people, sweet foods are what really make your taste buds sing. But if you’ve been diagnosed with prediabetes or diabetes (or just want to keep your blood sugar steady), it can be a struggle to find sweets that won’t send your blood glucose for a wild ride.
Many people with blood sugar issues turn to alternative sweeteners to keep their blood sugar on a steadier course. These products aim to sweeten everything from your morning coffee to your after-dinner cake without the blood sugar spike-and-drop of traditional sweeteners.
Wondering how “healthier” sweeteners really stack up? We’ve rounded up a list of the very best ones for your blood sugar. Here they are, in best to not-so-best order. Then, for more healthy eating tips, here are the 22 Meals to Melt Belly Fat in 2022.
What’s got zero calories, zero carbs, and a glycemic index (GI) of zero? Stevia! Because of its low GI, stevia doesn’t raise blood sugar at all. In fact, one small study found that it could actually lower insulin and blood glucose levels. Not many sweeteners have that claim to fame.
If you’re not familiar with the glycemic index, this ranking system gives foods a score that indicates how much they raise blood sugar. Zero is as good as it gets!
Splenda (aka sucralose) was introduced to the US market in 1998, and since then it has become a go-to sweetener for home and commercially-made pastries, beverages, ice creams, and more. Splenda performs the near-magical feat of flavoring foods with 600 times the sweetness of sugar—and none of the calories.
Not only does sucralose have zero calories, but it also doesn’t appear to affect blood glucose management. In the two-plus decades since its introduction, numerous studies have confirmed that Splenda doesn’t raise blood sugar at all. So if you’re used to its flavor (and enjoy its relatively low price point), you can feel free to keep using it with confidence.
Plus, contrary to popular belief, there isn’t conclusive evidence to show that Splenda causes cancer, and is not listed as a known carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol made by fermenting foods that naturally contain sugar, such as corn or wheat. Unlike other sweeteners that are exponentially sweeter than table sugar, this one is actually less sweet than the white stuff. Most estimates place its sweetness at around 70% of sugar’s.
Erythritol may be hard to pronounce (for the record, it’s “yer-rith-ruh-tol”), but it’s easy on your blood sugar. Like several other options on our list, erythritol has zero calories and its glycemic index is zero. And although it gets absorbed in the small intestine, it’s not metabolized—meaning it exits your body intact in your urine. Some people have reported digestive distress after consuming high amounts of erythritol, but most people tolerate it well.
As popular sweeteners go, allulose is the new kid on the block. This one is considered a rare sugar because it’s only found in small quantities in foods like brown sugar, maple syrup, and some dried fruits. Increasingly, food manufacturers are extracting it from these foods for use as a stand-alone sweetener.
Like stevia, Splenda, and erythritol, allulose doesn’t raise blood sugar—so folks with diabetes can feel free to do a happy dance. However, it’s not completely calorie-free (although it’s pretty darn close!). This alt-sweetener contains about 10% of the calories of sugar.
The list continues with a natural sweetener that’s getting lots of buzz lately: monk fruit. Native to southern China, monk fruit is (you guessed it) a small, round fruit. Its extract is 150 to 200 times sweeter than sugar, so a little bit goes a long way.
Because monk fruit has only been used as a sweetener for a relatively short time, it doesn’t have the same robust research backbone as some alternatives. Still, the evidence for monk fruit as a blood sugar-friendly sweetener is promising! Two studies from 2017 found that consuming monk fruit didn’t affect subjects’ blood sugar or insulin levels.
Not surprisingly, the two “-tol” sweeteners on the list have an important commonality: they’re both sugar alcohols. Xylitol, like erythritol, is derived from fermented corn (or sometimes—surprise!—birch bark). In fact, that’s where it gets its name, since “xylose” means “wood sugar.”
Of course, xylitol doesn’t taste like a tree. Its sweetness level is on par with white sugar. And unlike erythritol, this sugar alcohol does contain calories and carbs. A two-teaspoon serving comes with 20 calories and 8 grams of carbs. Its glycemic index of 13 is low—especially compared with white sugar’s GI of 65—but not zero.
You probably associate maple syrup with snow-dusted forests and wholesome, homemade recipes–and images like these are probably where this sweetener gets its healthy reputation. It’s true that maple syrup has earned its good name in many ways. It’s loaded with over two dozen types of antioxidants and even has small amounts of calcium, riboflavin, manganese, and zinc.
That said, for blood sugar issues, maple syrup isn’t the best sweetener. Although its glycemic index of 54 is lower than that of honey, brown sugar, and white sugar, it’s still high enough to elevate your blood glucose. And 13 grams of carbohydrates per tablespoon may use up quite a bit of your daily carb target. Make this one an occasional treat, not a daily dunking sauce.
Coconuts are another food with a health halo the size of a Hawaiian island. They’re fruits, the reasoning goes, so any of their byproducts must be healthy…right? Not necessarily.
In two teaspoons, coconut sugar contains 30 calories, 7 grams of sugar, and 8 grams of carbs–the exact same as white sugar. It does have a slight edge over table sugar for its trace amounts of nutrients like zinc, calcium, iron, and potassium. And a somewhat lower glycemic index means it’s possible coconut sugar wouldn’t disrupt your glucose as much as higher-glycemic sweeteners.
Still, it’s definitely not a ticket to steadier blood sugar levels. Keep this in mind before you whip up any tropical treats.
READ MORE: 5 Myths About Alternative Sweeteners, According to a Registered Dietitian