Sugar-free, no-sugar-added: What’s the lowdown?
Foods labeled “sugar-free” or “no-sugar-added” aren’t necessarily free of carbohydrate or calories. How much or little carbohydrate they contain depends on what sweeteners are in the food. Ingredients such as sorbitol and mannitol contain carbohydrate and calories. Others, such as aspartame and sucralose, don’t’ contain calories or carbohydrate. To count carbohydrate effectively, you must know how to recognize which sweeteners contain carbohydrate and/or calories and, if necessary, account for them.
Nonnutritive sweeteners (sugar substitutes)
There are currently six nonnutritive sweeteners approved by the FDA: acesulfame-potassium, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, and stevia (or rebiana). These are used in many foods and beverages today, including diet sodas, fruit drinks, syrups, and yogurts. The sweeteners contain no calories or carbohydrate and can greatly lower the carbohydrate and calorie sin foods. They don’t on their own, cause a rise in blood glucose levels. The foods they are used to sweeten may or may not contain carbohydrate and calories from other ingredients. For example, consider a diet soda with no calories versus a yogurt that contains some calories and carbohydrate from other ingredients.
Polyols, or sugar alcohols, are another type of sweetener used in sugar-free foods. They contain, on average, half the calories of sugars (2 calories vs. 4 calories per gram); however, some have as few as 0.2 calories per gram and others are as high as 3 calories per gram. Polyols are often used in foods such as candy, cookies, snack bars, and ice creams. Look for the “-ol” ending to identify a polyol; common ones are sorbitol, lactitiol, maltitol, and mannitol.
Polyols aren’t completely digested by the body – that’s why they have about half the calories of sugar. For the same reason, polyols can cuase a lower rise in blood glucose than regular sugars. (In large amounts and in some people, sugar alcohols may cause gas, cramps, and/or diarrhea. Foods with certain amounts of polyols are required by the FDA to have a label about this possible “laxative effect”).
Some foods may contain more than one type of sweetener. Read ingredient lists carefully to find out what sweeteners are used; by law, they must all be listed. For example, Truvia, a stevia product on the market, contains rebiana, the compound in the stevia leaf that makes it sweet, in addition to erythritol, which is a sugar alcohol.
How to count sugar-free foods
Often, when people are first diagnosed with diabetes, they think they won’t be able to eat sweets anymore. In this situation, some people seek out the “sugar-free” or “no-sugar-added” foods in the supermarket.
It’s up to you whether you include these foods in your eating plan. If you enjoy sweets, sugar-free products can help you satisfy that craving without adding to your carb count or your waistline. But as you’re learning, it’s also possible to fit foods sweetened with regular sweeteners into your eating plan, as long as it is moderation. The choice is up to you.
If you choose to eat sugar-free foods, you’ll need to learn how to include these foods in your carb counts.
Net Carb, Impact Carb, Etc.
Some of these terms became commonplace when low-carb weight loss plans like The Atkins Diet were all the rage. Although these terms aren’t as common as they once were, food manufacturers may still use these terms and others to promote their products to people watching their carbohydrate intake. To arrive at “net carbs”, the manufacturers subtract the total grams of sugar alcohols and fiber from the grams of Total Carbohydrate in the product. The remaining grams of carbohydrate are then referred to as “net carbs”. Some manufacturers also include a statement that only the net carbs in the product have an impact on blood glucose. It is important to know that these terms are not approved or regulated by the FDA and that the ADA does not use the term.
Other Nutrition Claims
Food manufacturers can make other claims on the food label outside of the Nutrition Facts label, such as “calorie-free” or “sugar-free”. But what do these claims mean? Food labeling laws include rules for these kinds of claims. For an explanation of what they mean, see below.
• Calorie free – Less than 5 calories per serving
• Fat free – less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving
• Sugar free – less than 0.5 grams of sugars per serving
• Reduced calorie – at least 25% fewer calories than regular food
• Reduced fat – at least 25% less fat than regular food
• Reduced sugars – at least 25% less sugar than regular food
• No added sugar, without added sugar, no sugar added – substitutes of sugars is used, contains no fruit juice concentrate or jelly, and the label says the food is not low calorie
Try your hand at using Food Labels
1. For breakfast, you have cooked oat bran cereal. The Nutrition Facts label says 1 serving is 1/3 cup and 1 serving contains 19 grams of carbohydrate and 5 grams of fiber. You eat 2/3 cup as a serving. The serving size of 2/3 cup cooked oat bran contains 38 grams carbohydrate (19 grams + 19 grams). Then you add ½ cup milk (6 grams carbohydrate) and 1 tablespoon raisins (7 grams carbohydrate), for a total of 51 grams carbohydrate (38 grams + 6 grams + 7 grams). If you are counting carb servings, this comes out to 3 ½ carb servings (51 grams / 15 grams carbohydrate per carb serving = 3.5 carb servings).
2. For dinner you decide to eat a frozen entrée of manicotti, a salad, a roll, and yogurt and strawberries for dessert. You read the Total Carbohydrate on the Nutrition Facts label for the prepared foods, and you get the carbohydrate counts for the roll, salad, and strawberries from a book or online database. What’s your total carb intake for the whole meal? If you use carb servings, how many servings would this meal add up to? 119 grams of carbohydrate / 15 grams of carbohydrate per carb serving = 8 carb servings
3. For breakfast, you eat dry cereal. You mix three cereals together to get a bunch of fiber and a unique taste. You also add 2 Tbsp of raisins. What’s the total carbohydrate count for this breakfast? Your servings of the three cereals are half of the serving sizes listed on the Nutrition Facts labels. You also need to add the carbohydrate for the raisins and milk, too. How many carb servings are in this breakfast? 86/15 = 5 ½ carb servings