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Sugar free-but is it carbohydrate free?

Posted by Marilyn Csernus -

It's not surprising that the term "sugar free" and "carbohydrate free" are at times misunderstood and used interchangeably. Foods labeled "sugar free" are not sweetened with caloric sweeteners such as sugar, corn syrup, honey, fructose or glucose. "Sugar free" doesn't mean carbohydrate free. Diet soda and "sugar free" jello are examples of products that are truly "sugar free" and carbohydrate free. These products contain no sugar, calories or carbohydrate as they are sweetened with a sugar substitute. A "sugar free" cookie may not contain sugar as a carbohydrate source but flour is a carbohydrate. Yogurts labeled "sugar free" have "no added sugar" however contains fruit and milk which are carbohydrates. This distinction is very important for people with diabetes. Sugar and foods containing sugar are part of a diabetes meal plan. Total carbohydrate intake has the most effect on blood glucose levels. Sugar, starch, fiber and sugar alcohols are all sources of carbohydrate and will raise blood sugar levels. Consuming sugar alcohol will increase blood sugar levels, but not as dramatically as some other carbohydrate sources.

Products labeled "sugar free" or "low carb" often use sugar alcohols to replace sugar. Sugar alcohols are FDA approved lower calorie sweeteners that contain about one-half of the calories other sweeteners contain and generally produce smaller increases in post meal blood sugar. Despite the name, sugar alcohols are not sugar or alcohol. Because sugar alcohols are not well absorbed they can cause a laxative effect and digestive discomfort, especially when larger quantities are consumed. Sugar alcohols are found on the nutrition label under the bold heading of total carbohydrates, and are listed in the ingredient list as sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, isomalt or hydrogenated starch hydrolysates.

When comparing the nutrition label of a "sugar free" product vs. the regularly sweetened version likely will reveal very similar carbohydrate content and calories. If one consumes "sugar free" cookies with the assumption they are a "free food" or without carbohydrate it will likely result in a rise in blood sugar. Emphasis should be placed on the total amount of carbohydrate more so than the source of carbohydrate.

It's not that sugar alcohols can't sometimes be helpful in reducing the total carbohydrate and calorie content of a product. The bottom line is to remember that total carbohydrate intake is the most important fact on the nutrition label for those with diabetes. Mistakenly, many people think "sugar free" or "no added sugar" products do not raise blood sugar. Whether carbs come from sugar alcohols or other sources of carbohydrate it is important to include them into your overall meal plan. It may be appropriate for some individuals to work with a dietitian or diabetes educator to learn how to use advanced carbohydrate counting to determine whether it would be beneficial to subtract a portion of the fiber and sugar alcohol from the total carbohydrate for a more accurate carbohydrate intake.

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