May 23, 2018
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Sugar-free products not always the best value

By Georgia Clark-Albert, Special to the BDN

The other day I overheard some people planning a pre-Thanksgiving Day pie auction. They were discussing the types of pies to have and someone made the comment that they needed to be sure to have sugar-free pies because people were always looking for things that were sugar-free.

From candy to sodas, cake and ice cream, stores are full of sugar-free options. The questions for someone with diabetes looking to purchase these products may include whether these products are worth the extra money you pay for them and whether there are any nutritional advantages or benefits of consuming them.

Artificial sweeteners such as Splenda and aspartame have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration and pronounced safe to consume by groups such as the International Food Information Council. There are some studies that indicate sugar-free foods may actually increase a person’s desire for sugar and in the end lead to weight gain. The theory is that the brain is getting the message that this is something sweet but it isn’t getting enough calories, so it increases the desire for a person to eat more.

Most sugar-free products will have sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners in place of sugar. Often, there isn’t much of a calorie savings in the sugar-free version because many of the calories in baked products come from fats and other carbohydrates besides sugar. For example, comparing Oreos and sugar-free Oreos, there is only a 5-calorie difference per cookie. Also, as is the case with many products, the sugar-free version is also smaller, possibly encouraging people to eat more. The ingredient list is usually much longer for a sugar-free product, so you really aren’t getting the same product minus the sugar.

There is also still a misunderstanding about the impact of sugar-free products and blood sugar control. Many believe that sugar-free products do not cause a rise in blood sugar, so portion control isn’t necessary. This is untrue. The biggest effect on blood sugar is the total carbohydrate content in a product. Regular table sugar may be replaced with sugar substitutes, but some sugar-free products still can contain about the same amount or more grams of total carbohydrates than regular products, and this causes blood sugar to rise just like regular products do.

Not only are some sugar-free desserts and other products not beneficial for glycemic control, they also are significantly more expensive compared to regular products. A ½-cup serving of chocolate ice cream from one manufacturer provides 17 grams of carbohydrates per serving, while a product that has no sugar added contains 18 grams of carbohydrates per serving. The price difference: regular, $3.72 for 12 servings; sugar free, $4.92 for 12 servings and an added gram of carbohydrate per serving. In comparing a regular cherry pie to a no-sugar-added pie — carbohydrate difference per serving would be 2 grams (44 compared with 46). Price difference: $6.20 for the regular whole pie compared with $9.80 for the sugar-free version.

If you are choosing to purchase sugar-free products, be sure to take the regular product and the sugar-free product from the shelf and compare the nutrition information from the labels. Avoid unnecessary added costs for no conceivable nutritional benefit.

November is American Diabetes Month. This year’s theme is “A Day in the Life of Diabetes.” Of the 25.8 million children and adults in the United States, 3.3 percent of the population have diabetes. About 18.8 million people are diagnosed, 7 million are undiagnosed and 79 million have pre-diabetes.

Sugar nutrient content claims

Nutrient content claims describe the relative level of a nutrient or dietary substance in a product, using terms such as free, high and low, or they compare the level of a nutrient in a food to that of another food, using terms such as more, reduced and lite.

— Free: In the case of sugar free,” less than 0.5 grams sugars per reference amount and per labeled serving (or for meals and main dishes, less than 0.5 g per labeled serving). No ingredient that is a sugar or generally understood to contain sugars except as noted below.

— Low: Not defined. No basis for recommended intake.

— Reduced-Less: At least 25 percent fewer sugars per reference amount than an appropriate reference food. May not use this claim on dietary supplements of vitamins and minerals.

“No added sugars” and “without added sugars” are allowed if no sugar or sugar-containing ingredient is added during processing, and if food is not “low” or “reduced calorie.” The terms “unsweetened” and “no added sweeteners” remain as factual statements. Claims about reducing dental caries are implied health claims. Does not include sugar alcohols.

FDA defines the “sugars” category in the NFP as the total amount of naturally present and recipe sugars. FDA states that the sugars amount includes sugars that are present naturally in the food such as lactose in milk and fructose in fruit, sucrose in fruits and vegetables, as well as sugars added to the food during processing, such as sugar-sucrose, corn syrup, honey, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates and dextrose.

Sugar content in a serving is expressed to the nearest gram. If a serving contains more than 0.5 grams but less than 1 gram, the statement “Contains less then 1 gram” or “less than 1 gram” may be used instead. If a serving contains less than 0.5 grams of sugars, the weight can be expressed as zero.

Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at or email her at


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