This Keto Life: A Little Bit of Sweet

I go through phases where I bake a lot. It’s not because I have an extraordinary love of baking – I wish I did. It’s because I like baked goods, and I can’t just go out and buy baked goods that I can eat. If I want muffins, or cheesecake, or biscuits, I have to make them myself. There’s just no way around it.

I have a pantry stocked with almond meal, coconut flour, xanthan gum, arrowroot powder and all the accoutrements of a low-carb and wheat-free life. I do actually have sugar in my pantry, but that’s basically in case visitors want sugar in their coffee (never let it be said that I will not assist in the appropriate caffeination of guests).

I’m aware that, in terms of chemical precision, I do not lead a sugar-free life. Raspberries contain sugars. Many things contain very low level of sugars in some form, and naturally any carbohydrate I consume (digestible carbohydrate, that is) will get broken down into sugars eventually. Fructose, lactose, glucose, sucrose – they’re all around in low levels. I don’t get rid of them completely.

When a person gets into ketosis, however, and maintains it for a while – getting past the usual carb cravings and need for chocolate or biscuits or whatever a person’s particular sweet poison is – they generally notice a profound change in the way they taste things: they become more sensitive to sweet tastes.

Or, to put it another way, just about everything with an un-altered level of sugar (think biscuits, cakes, chocolates, lollies) tastes way too sweet. Nauseatingly sweet. I had a mouthful of regular Coke at one point; it tastes like someone had poured crude oil into a vat of syrup and then carbonated the lot. It was intolerable. It was nauseating. And this is from someone who occasionally drinks Diet Coke (mmm, aspartame. But more on that later).

I still craved biscuits and cakes, however, but when I sat down and thought about it carefully, I realised it wasn’t really the sweet taste I was craving – oh, I wanted a little bit of sweet, but mostly what I wanted was the textures. The crumbly, chewy texture of a really good choc chip cookie; the smooshy filling and crumbly base of a cheesecake; the flaky, fluffy choux pastry of an éclair; these are things I wanted. I wanted textures, with a little sweet, and the other associated flavours.

Enter: artificial sweeteners.

Artificial sweeteners get a lot of flack. They’re blamed for everything from cancer to migraines to gut flora disruptions to laxative effects, and to be fair, these associations are (with the exception of cancer) pretty airtight for people who have these responses.

I can announce that I’m looking forward to making a low-carb sugar-free raspberry cheesecake (it is amazing), and I’ve had the response “Ugh. Why would you want to?”

Uh… because then I can eat cheesecake without getting sick? Why, is this rocket science?

I can’t help but think this is how vegans feel when someone says “Ugh, vegan cake, why would you eat that?” Because they want to eat cake without consuming animal products? This is not a difficult question. Also, even though I am a person who consumes vast quantities of dairy, eggs and meat, I’ve had some pretty delicious vegan cakes.

As a side note here, can I ask that people not do that? If someone tells you they’re excited because they are having delicious vegan cake or low-carb protein cookies, can you just not act like it’s disgusting and awful and like you feel massively sorry for them? They’ve found tasty food they can eat. Just be happy for them. Be nice about it. Don’t be a douchebag.

These days, when I serve people slices of my low-carb sugar-free raspberry cheesecake (now that I’ve perfected it, that is; initially I made some hilarious mistakes and it tasted like bicarb soda and licorice. Ugh), they make happy noises; and if they didn’t know it contained stevia, I tell them, and they are flabbergasted. Well, if they had any preconceptions about stevia and non-sugar sweeteners, at any rate.

I’ve learned, over the last year or so (two years in November!), a little bit about artificial sweeteners and how to use them successfully, and which ones I, personally, can and cannot tolerate. I am a connoisseur of sweeteners. Allow me to share my (admittedly idiosyncratic) experience.

When it comes to sugar alcohols: I can’t tolerate maltitol. My gut says no. There is bloating. My belly puffs out like a white marshmallow. It looks like I am pregnant with a little maltitol baby. It is very uncomfortable. So no, even in small amounts, no maltitol for me. Sadly, this cuts out the majority of mass-produced low-carb sugar-free snacks – they all use maltitol. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s easy to work with. Maybe it’s cheap. It has – to me – a horrendous aftertaste. But some people tolerate it just fine. It has the highest glycaemic index of any artificial sweetener, which may be a concern for people attempting to maintain ketosis.

I can sort of tolerate xylitol. Xylitol (birch bark extract) is very popular among the keto and low-carb and I Quit Sugar crowd, as it’s a one-for-one swap. This is really quite convenient for baking purposes. It turns out that I am okay with xylitol in small quantities; not “chocolate mug cake” quantities. Don’t ask how I know. You don’t want to know how I know. But never again. Many people are good with xylitol, and it has a moderate GI response.

I can definitely tolerate stevia. Mind you, I did try liquid stevia for a while, and I am sad to say that I hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. I can’t handle the backtaste. Instead, I use a powdered blend of stevia and erythritol (Natvia). Erythritol is generally not absorbed by the gut, so it has a fairly negligible impact on blood sugar, and although it has a slightly cold taste that some people are bothered by, I generally don’t get a stevia backtaste when I bake with it. Natvia is actually my baking sweetener of choice.

Sucralose – Splenda – is a funny one. I didn’t used to tolerate it well – it seemed to send my blood sugar up – but now it doesn’t? Perhaps I misunderstood what was going on? Who knows! Regardless, I’ve done a few tests, and I’m actually fine with it, to the point that I now carry around little Splenda tablets to add to tea when I’m out. I don’t add sugar to coffee, but when I have tea I really like a little bit of sweetener in it, and Splenda does the trick nicely. It doesn’t work well in coffee. Maybe that’s because I’m a coffee snob. It seems to add a weird tang to the coffee. Still – fine in tea.

Aspartame – oh, poor aspartame. Maligned. Shown to – apparently – cause cancer in rats in large quantities. Very large quantities. I’m really not sure where the science falls – up and down and back and forth. It’s bad for you. It’s not bad for you. It’s bad for rats. It’s only bad for small rats. What? Honestly, at this point, I don’t care. I seem to tolerate it well and don’t get headaches, so I drink it in Diet Coke when I have a craving. I can’t have a lot of it – mostly because, to me, it tastes too sweet (yes, it’s a sweetener. Shaddap).

The final sweetener I consume in any quantity is sorbitol, another sugar alcohol. It’s the key ingredient in my “No Sugar Added” Vanilla Ice Cream (Peters). It turns out I can tolerate the amount in a standard (50g) serve of the ice cream. If I go wild, and have a double serve (100g), the binge will have consequences. Unpleasant consequences, much like the xylitol.

This really covers most of them (I haven’t covered “acesulfame K” because even though I found out I consume it, I haven’t noticed any real pros/cons, and I forget what it’s in). Essentially, I don’t have the headache/migraine response to any of them, and mostly if my body objects, it objects in a gut-oriented sort of way, although occasionally it objects in a blood glucose insulin spike sort of way.

All of which are way better for me than consuming “pure, natural” sugar (“Why don’t you just have sugar?” “BECAUSE I DON’T LIKE BEING SICK, YOU KNOB.”). When it comes right down to it, I don’t give a crap how “natural” my food is. I care whether it will make me sick or not. Given that so many foods make me feel sick, that has to be my primary concern. Having found a diet that doesn’t make me sick, I’m pretty happy.

I do, however, have one extra tip for anyone embarking on the sugar-free baking journey: use less sweetener than the recipe calls for. If you’re keto-tastic, your palate has probably adjusted, and the last thing you want is to overwhelm it with sweet tastes you’re not used to. Also, a lot of these sweeteners do have some sort of backtaste, and you don’t want that to overwhelm the deliciousness of your cakes and biscuits!

Generally speaking, I use half to 2/3 the amount of sweetener the recipe calls for (if it’s an American recipe, it’s closer to half – you guys have one hell of a sweet tooth!). This can be a bit problematic if it’s a powdered sweetener and you’re also using it for bulk, but a bit of trial and error should resolve the issue.

Then, at the end of it all, you get the little indulgences that make it possible to live with a restrictive diet like keto – and you get a little bit of sweet.

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