Do Sugar-Free Snacks Really Save Carbs and Calories?

Sugar-free foods add flexibility to your diabetes meal plan, but they're not a free ride. We gathered a sampling of no-sugar-added, sugar-free, and reduced-sugar items from the supermarket to compare nutrition per serving and price with the regular (sugar-containing) versions of these foods. Find out how to count them and when they're smart picks.

What to Know About Sugar-Free Foods

When people discover you have diabetes, they may proudly offer you sugar-free versions of favorite treats, such as cocoa and cookies. But sugar-free claims don't mean these items are carb- or calorie-free. They often contain other ingredients with carbohydrate -- such as milk, flour, or fruit -- that count toward your carb allowance.

Sugar-Free vs. No-Sugar-Added
Government labeling rules dictate that sugar-free products must have less than 0.5 gram of sugar in a serving, and no-sugar-added foods can't contain added sugar. To add sweetness without sugar, some of these products use sweeteners called sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol, which contribute to the carb count but not as much as sugar. Many products also contain no-calorie sweeteners, such as sucralose, aspartame, and acesulfame potassium, which don't provide carbohydrate.

In many cases, sugar-free and no-sugar-added foods offer significant carb and calorie savings, making them smart choices. But sometimes these foods cut your carb intake only slightly and may cost more, too. And if you simply prefer the taste of the regular version of the food, you may find a smaller portion of it is just as satisfying as a full serving of the sugar-free option.

Sugar Alcohol 101
Sugar alcohol sweeteners typically have names that end with "ol," such as sorbitol and maltitol. Our bodies don't absorb sugar alcohols very well, so on average they provide half the calories and carbohydrate of sugar and affect your blood glucose less. But eating a lot of these sweeteners may cause digestive side effects (such as diarrhea), so limit your intake.

To count foods with these sweeteners, check the nutrition label for sugar alcohol. If the food has more than 5 grams of sugar alcohol per serving, subtract half of these grams from the total carbohydrate grams to get your carb count.

Sugar alcohol quick math:
Total carb grams - half the sugar alcohol grams = your carb count

Keep reading for our no-sugar-added, sugar-free, and reduced-sugar food comparison guide.

Light Dessert Secrets from the Test Kitchen

Cool Whip Whipped Topping

Sugar-Free Version

  • Serving Size: 2 tbsp.
  • Calories: 20
  • Fat: 1 g
  • Carb: 3 g
  • Price: $1.89/8-oz. tub

Regular Version (same brand)

  • Serving Size: 2 tbsp.
  • Calories: 25
  • Fat: 1.5 g
  • Carb: 2 g
  • Price: $1.89/8-oz. tub

How They Compare
Sugar-free product (with aspartame) doesn't have a carbohydrate advantage, although it has slightly less fat and fewer calories, which could add up with multiple servings.

Our Best Fruit Crisp and Cobbler Recipes

Dannon Yogurt

Low-Sugar Version

  • Serving Size: 4 oz.
  • Calories: 45
  • Fat: 1.5 g
  • Carb: 3 g
  • Price: $2.99/4-oz. four-pack (19 cents/oz.)

Regular Version (same brand)

  • Serving Size: 6 oz.
  • Calories: 150
  • Fat: 2.5 g
  • Carb: 25 g
  • Price: 69 cents/6-oz. carton (12 cents/oz.)

How They Compare
A 4-ounce serving of Carb & Sugar Control product saves 22 grams of carbohydrate and 105 calories compared with 6 ounces of sugar-sweetened Dannon All Natural Vanilla.

Del Monte Mandarin Oranges

No-Sugar-Added Version

  • Serving Size: 4 oz.
  • Calories: 40
  • Fat: 0 g
  • Carb: 12 g
  • Price: $2.89/4-oz. four-pack

Regular Version (same brand)

  • Serving Size: 4 oz.
  • Calories: 70
  • Fat: 0 g
  • Carb: 17 g
  • Price: $2.89/4-oz. four-pack

How They Compare
No-sugar-added product saves 5 grams of carbohydrate and 30 calories per serving, plus it costs the same as the brand's regular oranges in light syrup.

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Hershey's Special Dark Chocolate Miniatures

Sugar-Free Version

  • Serving Size: 5 pieces (40 g)
  • Calories: 150
  • Fat: 13 g
  • Carb: 24 g
  • Sugar Alcohol: 17 g
  • Price: $1.99/3-oz. bag (66 cents/oz.)

Regular Version (same brand)

  • Serving Size: 5 pieces (41 g)
  • Calories: 190
  • Fat: 13 g
  • Carb: 24 g
  • Price: $3.09/11-oz. bag (28 cents/oz.)

How They Compare
Sugar-free product saves 8.5 grams of carbohydrate (after subtracting half of the sugar alcohol) and 40 calories per serving but costs more than twice as much as regular bars.

Note: Amount of sugar alcohol is more than 5 grams, so subtract half the amount of sugar alcohol from total carbohydrate to find how many grams of carbohydrate to count per serving.

Chocolate Lovers Recipes

Jell-O Cook & Serve Chocolate Pudding

Sugar-Free Version

  • Serving Size: 1/4 package
  • Calories: 30
  • Fat: 0 g
  • Carb: 7 g
  • Price: 99 cents/four-serving-size box

Regular Version (same brand)

  • Serving Size: 1/4 package
  • Calories: 90
  • Fat: 0 g
  • Carb: 22 g
  • Price: 99 cents/four-serving-size box

How They Compare
Sugar-free pudding mix saves 15 grams of carbohydrate and 60 calories per serving, plus it costs the same as regular pudding (avoid added fat by preparing with fat-free milk).

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Oreo Chocolate Sandwich Cookies

Sugar-Free Version

  • Serving Size: 2 cookies (24 g)
  • Calories: 100
  • Fat: 5 g
  • Carb: 16 g
  • Sugar Alcohol: 7 g
  • Price: $3.19/6.75-oz. box (47 cents/oz.)

Regular Version (same brand)

  • Serving Size: 3 cookies (34 g)
  • Calories: 160
  • Fat: 7 g
  • Carb: 25 g
  • Price: $4.19/18-oz. package (23 cents/oz.)

How They Compare
Sugar-free product saves 2 grams of carbohydrate (after subtracting half the sugar alcohol grams) and 3 calories per cookie compared with the regular version but costs more.

Note: Amount of sugar alcohol is more than 5 grams, so subtract half the amount of sugar alcohol from total carbohydrate to find how many grams of carbohydrate to count per serving.

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Pillsbury Milk Chocolate Brownie mix

Reduced-Sugar Version

  • Serving Size: 1/12 package (29 g)
  • Calories: 100
  • Fat: 2 g
  • Carb: 23 g
  • Sugar Alcohol: 6 g
  • Price: $2.59/12.35-oz. box (21 cents/oz.)

Regular Version (same brand)

  • Serving Size: 1/20 package (28 g)
  • Calories: 110
  • Fat: 2 g
  • Carb: 23 g
  • Price: $1.39/19.5-oz. package (7 cents/oz.)

How They Compare
Reduced-sugar product saves 3 grams of carbohydrate (after subtracting half the sugar alcohol) and 10 calories per serving but costs three times more (per ounce).

Note: Amount of sugar alcohol is more than 5 grams, so subtract half the amount of sugar alcohol from total carbohydrate to find how many grams of carbohydrate to count per serving.

Quaker Instant Oatmeal Maple & Brown Sugar

Lower-Sugar Version

  • Serving Size: 1 packet
  • Calories: 120
  • Fat: 2 g
  • Carb: 24 g
  • Price: $3.79/10-packet box

Regular Version (same brand)

  • Serving Size: 1 packet
  • Calories: 160
  • Fat: 2 g
  • Carb: 33 g
  • Price: $3.79/10-packet box

How They Compare
Lower-sugar product saves 9 grams of carbohydrate and 40 calories per packet, plus it costs the same as the regular version in the same flavor.

Breakfast Recipes

Ragu Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce

No-Sugar-Added Version

  • Serving Size: 1/2 cup
  • Calories: 50
  • Fat: 1 g
  • Carb: 9 g
  • Price: $2.32/26-oz. jar

Regular Version (same brand)

  • Serving Size: 1/2 cup
  • Calories: 60
  • Fat: 1.5 g
  • Carb: 10 g
  • Price: $2.32/26-oz. jar

How They Compare
Carb savings with the light, no-sugar-added version is small because the tomatoes provide most of the carbohydrate. But this no-sugar sauce saves 80 milligrams sodium.

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Smucker's Caramel Sundae Syrup

Sugar-Free Version

  • Serving Size: 2 tbsp.
  • Calories: 90
  • Fat: 0 g
  • Carb: 24 g
  • Sugar Alcohol: 15 g
  • Price: $3/19.25-oz. jar (16 cents/oz.)

Regular Version (same brand)

  • Serving Size: 2 tbsp.
  • Calories: 100
  • Fat: 0 g
  • Carb: 25 g
  • Price: $2.69/20-oz. jar (13 cents/oz.)

How They Compare
Sugar-free product saves 8.5 grams of carbohydrate (after subtracting half of the sugar alcohol) per serving and costs only slightly more than regular caramel syrup.

Ice Cream Recipes

Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa Mix

No-Sugar-Added Version

  • Serving Size: 1 envelope
  • Calories: 60
  • Fat: 1 g
  • Carb: 10 g
  • Price: $2.79/8-packet box (35 cents/packet)

Regular Version (same brand)

  • Serving Size: 1 envelope
  • Calories: 120
  • Fat: 2 g
  • Carb: 23 g
  • Price: $2.79/10-packet box (28 cents/packet)

How They Compare
No-sugar-added product saves 13 grams of carbohydrate and has just half the calories, but it costs a little more (per packet) than the brand's regular hot cocoa mix.

Wilderness Cherry Pie Filling

No-Sugar-Added Version

  • Serving Size: 1/3 cup
  • Calories: 35
  • Fat: 0 g
  • Carb: 8 g
  • Price: $2.99/20-oz. can

Regular Version (same brand)

  • Serving Size: 1/3 cup
  • Calories: 90
  • Fat: 0 g
  • Carb: 23 g
  • Price: $2.99/21-oz. can

How They Compare
No-sugar-added product has 60 percent fewer calories and saves 15 grams of carbohydrate per serving versus regular version.

Learn How to Read Food Labels

Foods to Avoid

We're all about eating what you love. But even in moderation, some foods are poor choices for anyone -- even people without diabetes. These top foods to avoid contain high amounts of fat, sodium, carbohydrate, and calories. Instead, indulge with our satisfying and delicious alternatives!

Think Before You Eat: 15 Foods to Avoid with Diabetes

Diabetic Living Video

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