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Kabocha Extract: The Best Kept Secret in Keto-Sweeteners?

It’s incredible how many options are out there when it comes to sugar substitutes. While it’s not hard to find one that’s keto-friendly, it can be pretty difficult to find one that you actually enjoy.

Whether it’s an unpleasant aftertaste, a weird cooling-effect, or potential gastric upset, a lot of the options available to us fall just a bit short in comparison to the true white powder… *cough cough* sugar.

I wrote an entire blog post outlining my general opinion on sweeteners (which you can read here). In this post, I want to dive a bit deeper into one of the newer sweeteners on the market -- kabocha extract.

Kabocha Extract

Kabocha extract has zero net carbs, zero calories, zero glycemic index and it measures at a 1:1 ratio with sugar.

Most importantly, it is virtually indistinguishable from sugar! Seriously… no weird mouthfeel, no aftertaste, no gastric upset, and no blood sugar response.

Since discovering kabocha extract, I’ve tried it out in a whole bunch of recipes and have yet to be disappointed. It bakes, cooks, and dissolves just like real cane sugar. It even held up under the scrutiny of non-keto taste testers, who had absolutely no idea it wasn’t the 'real' thing.

So what is this new-found sugar-substitute exactly?

Kabocha extract is derived from the kabocha squash (Cucurbita maxima Duchesne).[1] Also known as the ‘Japanese pumpkin,’ kabocha is packed with nutrients but is also relatively low in carbohydrates compared to other common winter squash varieties, making it an incredible, keto-friendly superfood.[1] Check out the full article I wrote on kabocha squash.

As of right now, the only commercially available kabocha extract on the market is in the form of BochaSweetTM, produced by a small company with the same name based in Nevada.

*Note: I have absolutely no affiliation with this company or financial incentive for writing this post. I am simply sharing my experience and the research I’ve gathered to help you further understand this product, as there is currently very little information out there.

Using a complex low-temp process, BochaSweet is naturally extracted from non-GMO kabocha squash in the form of a pentose sugar.

In fact, that’s the only way it’s identified on the product label. The ingredient listed is kabocha extract, but the facts panel identifies the carbohydrate sub-category as “pentose sugar,” which I’d never seen before.

After a few years of working in the supplement industry, I personally can’t help but be reluctantly skeptical any time I see something unusual on a label. Products that seem too good to be true… usually are.

So I decided to dig a little deeper...

The lack of clarification on what specific pentose sugar is in BochaSweet naturally threw up some red flags for me. 

“Pentose” is just a class of simple sugar molecules (also known as monosaccharides) after all, and that basically just identifies its molecular structure as being a 5-carbon monosaccharide. In comparison, a glucose molecule is classified as a hexose sugar because it’s a 6-carbon monosaccharide.[2] 

Have I lost you yet?? Don’t worry, getting to the point now.

It wasn’t just curiosity that had me digging for more information. Just claiming the extract to be a pentose sugar doesn’t actually identify what it truly is. This is an issue because there are multiple different types of 5-carbon monosaccharides that it could be. There are quite a few out there, some better for our health, some worse. 

The product label claims that this particular pentose sugar doesn’t elicit an insulin response, but unfortunately that doesn’t actually help narrow things down for us. The reason is that even if it’s a completely legitimate claim, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s keto-friendly or ‘healthy.’ Here’s why…

We’ve all heard of fructose before right? Fructose is also a 5-carbon monosaccharide, and it also doesn’t directly stimulate insulin secretion from the pancreas. 

So technically, fructose is a pentose sugar that doesn’t raise blood insulin (hmm sounds familiar). 

However, it certainly can induce insulin resistance and impair glucose tolerance, which in the end can lead to the same issues caused by traditional, insulin-spiking table sugar.[3]

Now just to be clear, when I’m referring to fructose above, I’m not talking about the fructose found in naturally occurring whole food fruits. I’m referring to the processed crap like soda, breakfast cereals, baked goods, condiments, and prepared desserts sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). 

Along with an increase in total energy consumption over the past few decades, the consumption of fructose has increased dramatically. The commercial use of HFCS began to increase in the 1970s and by 1985, HFCS accounted for about 35% of the total amount of sweeteners in the food supply. Coincidentally, the rise in obesity sky-rocketed.

Okay, back to kabocha extract.

After speaking with the company directly for clarification, I discovered that the pentose sugar in their kabocha extract is xylose, also commonly called ‘wood sugar.’ [4] 

Internationally, xylose is a relatively common sugar substitute because of its minimal impact on blood glucose and subsequently minimal effect on insulin levels.[4] 

Here in the states, you’re probably more familiar with its derivative, xylitol, which can be produced through a hydrogenation process using xylose as the parent material.[4] 

Like xylitol, xylose has 100% relative sweetness compared to normal table sugar [6, 7] giving it that ideal 1:1 substitute ratio. This is a really important characteristic, especially when it comes to baking. Using an alternative that provides the same bulk to the ingredient composition means you won’t have to dig into the chemistry of cooking in order to maintain the dry-to-liquid ratio of the recipe.

For all its popularity though, xylitol has one major pitfall that prevents many people from even wanting to bring it into their homes. 

If you are a pet owner, you’re probably well aware of the fact that xylitol is toxic to dogs and even small amounts can prove to be lethal.

Xylose, on the other hand, doesn’t carry these risks and poses no threat to the health of your pup, making it a great option for any dog-friendly home!

So if this sugar substitute is so great, why hasn’t it taken over the keto-friendly sweetener space already?

After speaking with the company, I found out that there are two primary reasons that BochaSweet has been relatively slow to gain traction.

The first is likely the price. At $13.99 for a 1 lb (453.6g) bag, it’s definitely a bit more expensive than most other options available. The reason for the higher cost of the product is the size of the operation. BochaSweet is still a relatively small company. Sourcing their high-quality squashes all the way from small farms in Japan, along with their small-scale manufacturing capabilities, BochaSweet is pretty limited in how much they’re able to bring down the end price of the product.

The second and more compelling reason BochaSweet isn’t more widely known is because of the limitations to the claims that can be made about some potential health benefits of the product. 

For one thing, US regulations prevent food and supplement companies from making health claims that are even remotely related to any disease or illness. The other hurdle here is the fact that most of the studies demonstrating the health benefits of daily kabocha extract use have been done in foreign countries. 

This poses two problems for US-based companies wanting to market the health benefits of this product.

  1. The studies are published in foreign languages, most of them in Mandarin, which certainly prevents most people from being able to dive into analyzing the science and results presented.
  2. Even if you could interpret the studies, the kabocha extract is used in the context of disease management or treatment, like blood glucose control in patients with diabetes, for example. That being the case, any claims pulled from these studies wouldn’t be allowed anyway because they would qualify as ‘health claims’ which is against US regulations.

Regardless of these limitations though, kabocha extract has slowly been picking up momentum in the keto world. With its sugar-like functionality, as well as some potential undisclosed health benefits, it will probably continue to do so.

This keto sweetener is definitely worth trying, and I’m sure you’ll be as impressed with it as I have! Head over to my Amazon Shop page if you want to pick up a bag and try it out for yourself.

References

  1. Kulczyński B, Gramza-Michałowska A. The Profile of Carotenoids and Other Bioactive Molecules in Various Pumpkin Fruits (Cucurbita maxima Duchesne) Cultivars. Molecules. 2019;24(18):3212. Published 2019 Sep 4. doi:10.3390/molecules24183212
  2. Chapter 5. Carbohydrates 1/. (n.d.). 
  3. Sharon S elliot, Nancy L Keim, Judith S Stern, Karen Teff, Peter J Havel. Fructose, weight gain, and the insulin resistance syndrome. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2002 Nov;76(5):911-922.
  4. Xylose - DrugBase database
  5. Wishart DS, Feunang YD, Guo AC, Lo EJ, Marcu A, Grant JR, Sajed T, Johnson D, Li C, Sayeeda Z, Assempour N, Iynkkaran I, Liu Y, Maciejewski A, Gale N, Wilson A, Chin L, Cummings R, Le D, Pon A, Knox C, Wilson M. DrugBank 5.0: a major update to the DrugBank database for 2018. Nucleic Acids Res. 2017 Nov 8. doi: 10.1093/nar/gkx1037.
  6. Sugar Alcohols (Polyols) and Polydextrose Used as Sweeteners in Foods - Food Safety - Health Canada
  7. Chattopadhyay S, Raychaudhuri U, Chakraborty R: Artificial sweeteners - a review. J Food Sci Technol. 2014 Apr;51(4):611-21. doi: 10.1007/s13197-011-0571-1. Epub 2011 Oct 21.
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