The Truth Behind Sugar Free Products

Sugar Free Doesn't Mean Carbohydrate Free

Sugar free Pitfalls
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Regardless of whether or not you have diabetes, eating unlimited amounts of sweets is not the best idea. While you are entitled to a treat from time to time, overeating sweets can lead to soaring blood sugars, stomach aches and unhealthy eating habits. If you think sugar free treats is the answer, think again. Just because a food is labeled "sugar free" does not mean it's carbohydrate free or low-calorie.

In fact, the FDA states that foods labeled "sugar free" should also have a disclaimer that reads "not "low" or "reduced in" calories. Because some of us may think these foods are "diet foods" and overeat them.  It is important that we know the truth behind sugar free products - that is, just because they are sugar free does not necessarily mean they are healthy or low-calorie. Take "sugar free" toffee squares, for instance: 3 pieces contain: 210 calories, 16 g of fat, 24 g of carbohydrate and 23 g of sugar alcohols. 

Because the label reads sugar free:

We May Eat More Than One Serving

When it comes to being a savvy consumer, it is important to read labels. Unless sold in a single serving container, most packages contain multiple servings. Therefore, if you eat the whole bag you need to multiply the calories, carbohydrates, and fat by the servings per container. For example, the whole bag of toffee candies has two servings and will cost you: 

~410 calories, 32g fat (half your daily needs), 18g saturated fat (almost a days worth of saturated fat), 48 g of carbohydrate (about 3 slices of bread) and 46 g of sugar alcohols (which can cause gas and diarrhea). 

Overeating foods with sugar alcohols can also cause a laxative effect - most labels have this claim written on it in fine print.

We May Neglect to Realize that Carbohydrates Turn Into Sugar

In simplest terms, carbohydrates are broken down by enzymes to provide the body with glucose or sugar for energy. Most of the carbohydrates found in sugar free candies come from sugar alcohols, such as malitol. Although our bodies do not absorb all the calories from malitol, they do absorb some. This means that your blood sugars can still go up when eating sugar free products - especially if you are overeating them.

So What Can We Do Instead?

Every individual is different, but I usually tell my patients to treat themselves to a real treat made without sugar alcohols or sugar substitutes. Savor each bite and count it into your meal plan. Aim to move a bit more when you know you are going to splurge. Physical activity helps to utilize insulin and burn up excess sugar. When choosing treats, avoid plain sugary candies such as sour candies, taffy, and licorice as they can contain no fat or protein and can spike blood sugars rapidly.

Other Treats Sans Sugar Alcohols

  • 1 oz 75-90% dark chocolate: ~ 170 calories, 12 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 7 g sugar, 2 g protein.  Melt the chocolate and dip strawberries for added fiber benefit.
  • 1/2 cup of vanilla ice cream: ~150 calories, 7 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 15 g carbohydrate, 15 g sugar and 2 g protein. Top it with 1/2 cup fresh fruit and a tablespoon of chopped nuts for added fiber and protein boost. 
  • 2 Peanut Butter cups: ~ 210 calories, 13 g fat, 4.5 g saturated fat, 24 g carbohydrate, 24 g sugar, 5 g protein.

Sources

U.S Food and Drug Administration. Guidance for Industry and FDA: Dear Manufacturer Letter Regarding Sugar Free Claims. Accessed on-line: February 13, 2014. http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/GuidanceDocumentsRegulatoryInformation/LabelingNutrition/ucm053431.htm

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