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The Truth About Sugar-Free Products

When Free Isn’t Really

Source: Diabetes Forecast,  April, 2001
Author: Mindy Andrus

“I bought you these sugar-free cookies because I know you have diabetes.”

Most of us with diabetes have heard these words from well-meaning family and friends from time to time. What most people don’t realize is that most sugar-free products still contain carbohydrate and will make your blood sugar levels go up.

Anything that has starch or sugar–whether naturally occurring or added to it–contains carbohydrates. All carbohydrates are broken down and turned into sugar in our bodies. They are the main part of food that determines our blood sugar levels. One carbohydrate choice equals 15 grams of carbohydrate and is the same as a starch, fruit, or milk exchange.

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that because something is sugar free that it is also free of carbohydrates. Most of the time, that just isn’t true. You also have to be careful about a label that indicates “no sugar added.” That doesn’t mean there is no sugar in the product, just that the manufacturer hasn’t added any additional sugar. There could be starch in such a product too.

Let me give you some examples from actual food labels to show you what I mean.

Product #1 Regular Jelly Beans
Serving size: 32 pieces (40 g) Total Carbohydrate 37 g Dietary fiber 0 g Sugars 29 g

Product #2  Sugar-Free Jelly Beans
Serving size: 2 Tbsp (37 g) Total Carbohydrate 33 g Dietary fiber 0 g Sugars 0 g Sugar alcohol 30 g

If you are like a lot of people I know with diabetes, the first thing you would have looked at is the sugar amount. Seeing that regular jelly beans have 29 grams of sugar and the sugar-free jelly beans contain no sugar at all, you very well might have chosen the sugar-free jelly beans. However, when you look at total carbohydrates you find that although there are no grams of sugar in the sugar-free jelly beans, they have 33 grams of total carbohydrate. Almost as much as in the regular ones.

In this case, whether you chose the regular or the sugar-free jelly beans, you would have to substitute them for approximately two carbohydrate choices. (Sugar alcohols are fermented sugars that have slightly fewer calories than sugar, but they do still affect blood sugar levels. They can also cause diarrhea if you eat too much of them.)

You might also have noticed that the serving sizes listed are hard to compare. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon problem. Product #1 lists a serving size of 32 jelly beans, while Product #2 lists a serving size of two tablespoons. It takes some extra work to estimate how many jelly beans will fit in a tablespoon (in this case, I’d guess around 10 to 12), but you will often find such discrepancies when you compare products.

Product #3: Regular Lemon Cream Sandwich Cookies
Serving size: 3 cookies (28 g) Total Carbohydrate 19 g Dietary fiber 0 g Sugars 9 g

Product #4: Sugar-free Lemon Cream Sandwich Cookies
Serving size: 3 cookies (28 g) Total Carbohydrate 20 g Dietary fiber 1 g Sugars 0 g Sorbitol 6 g

You again see that although there are zero grams of sugar in a serving of the sugar-free cookies, these cookies actually have one gram more of carbohydrate per serving than the regular cookies. It wouldn’t matter if you chose the regular or the sugar-free cookies; one serving would still have to be substituted for 1.5 carbohydrate choices from your meal plan.

There are a few sugar-free products that truly are carbohydrate free, such as diet soda, sugar-free gelatin, and sugar-free drink mixes (such as Kool-Aid and Crystal Light). Just make sure you check for total carbohydrate and not just sugar on your food labels. If there is carbohydrate, make sure you count it and make the appropriate substitutions.