When blood sugar control is a priority health concern, foods labeled as “sugar-free” can make navigating the grocery store a much easier experience. Sugar-free versions of traditionally carbohydrate-laden foods such as cookies, ice cream, candy, and chewing gum can be helpful while managing diabetes. However, it is important to understand how sugar-free products are made and how they affect our blood sugar.

What are sugar alcohols?

Many sugar-free products are made by replacing sugar (sucrose) with sugar alcohols, a type of reduced-calorie sweetener. Examples of sugar alcohols include mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates, among others. These types of sweeteners provide fewer calories than sugar and also have less of an effect on blood glucose levels compared to other types of carbohydrate.

Sugar alcohols do not contain alcohol. Though sugar alcohols provide a convenient way to bring sweet flavor to a product while reducing carbohydrate content, it’s important to note that these types of sweeteners can produce certain side effects. Bloating and diarrhea can be typical side effects if eaten in excess, as sugar-alcohols are not as easily absorbed by the body. Additionally, many sugar-free foods may have a higher fat content compared to the regular variety of a product, as more fat is often added to a product to make up for the lack of regular sugar.

How do sugar alcohols affect my diabetes?

The amount of sugar alcohols in a food product can often be found on the nutrition facts label under “Total Carbohydrate”. The American Diabetes Association cautions that the effect of your sugar alcohols on blood sugar can vary. If a food has more than 5 grams of sugar alcohols, it is recommended to subtract half the grams of sugar alcohol from the amount of total carbohydrate in a food product. The remaining grams of total carbohydrate for that food can be counted in your meal plan. Each gram of sugar alcohol in a product accounts for 2 calories versus 4 calories per gram in other carbohydrate sources.

Sugar-free foods can safely be part of a carbohydrate-controlled diet but should not make up the majority of foods eaten. It is best to view the nutrition facts label of a product to best determine the overall carbohydrate content of a food. Many people often over-consume “sugar-free” foods with the false assumption that these products are free of carbohydrate. Because sugar-free products are processed differently from regular varieties, sugar-free products can cost more money. If budget is a concern, you may opt to purchase the regular variety of a food while eating a controlled portion size to monitor carbohydrate content.

It is important to consult with your physician or registered dietitian about the right amount of carbohydrate needed at each meal for managing your diabetes. Often times with a new diagnosis of diabetes, it may seem like one has to completely cut out carbohydrate intake. The reality is that carbohydrates are needed in controlled amounts throughout the day for optimal blood sugar control.