By Marsha McCulloch, R.D., L.D.
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.
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