By: Valerie Goodman
Diabetes food! Just the words can conjure up past images of long treks down the pharmacy aisle—past the orthopedic shoe supports, and toward the sparse, deserted shelf of “sugar-free products.”
Times and tastes have changed since those days, and people with diabetes have more options than ever when choosing lower-carb versions of their favorite foods. Walk down any snack food or candy aisle, and you’ll see sugar-free equivalents sitting right next to the traditional favorites.
How Low-Carb Are They?
However, two important factors arise: Are these products good enough to be purchased for taste as well as doctor’s orders? And exactly how low-carb are they? Can these products be consumed without wreaking havoc on blood glucose levels?
To address the taste issue, several volunteers participated in an informal taste test that evaluated “regular” popular brands and their sugar-free counterparts. Participants included medical personnel at an endocrine clinic and office workers at a large corporation.
A total of 32 participants rated the foods on a scale from “excellent” to “very poor.” Both people with and without diabetes marked their preferences and the data was combined.
One of the most interesting aspects of the study was the considerable difference in awareness between people with diabetes and those without concerning sugar-free products. While most people with diabetes can effortlessly expound on the nuances of saccharine, aspartame, Splenda and stevia, other people are hardly aware that a food transformation is taking place at all.
For example, one of the volunteers with diabetes could not only tell which product was sugar-free, he could also identify the type of artificial sweetener used in each item.
“I’ve been doing this for 23 years,” he explained. “I know the difference.”
On the other hand, when one of the other volunteers was asked if she ever consumed sugar-free products on a regular basis, she asked, “Does gum count?”
That attitude seemed to be the consensus among the participants without diabetes. Many had never tried anything sugar-free (except for an occasional diet soda) and had just assumed the food would be terrible. However, after completing the taste test, almost every person without diabetes was pleasantly surprised that the sugar-free food was not only edible, some of it was actually better than regular brands.
Needless to say, the manufacturers of these products might do well to market to a wider audience.
“With a couple of exceptions, they all tasted the same to me,” said one participant. “I know I’m buying sugar-free Jolly Ranchers from now [on]. I can’t tell the difference.”
High Marks for Sugar-Free Chocolate
Even sugar-free chocolate, which in the past has been notoriously horrible, received high marks.
“Chocolate has to have a certain taste or I won’t eat it,” remarked one volunteer. “You can kind of tell which is the sugar-free chocolate, but it was still pretty good. I might consider buying it.”
Searching for a Snack-Food Utopia
Nevertheless, even with the overall positive feedback, there is a long way to go before we get to a “snack-food Utopia” where everything low-carb tastes like Grandma used to make. More than one person scrunched up their face when biting into a sugar-free mint patty or Strawberry Twist. Still, the quality of sugar-free over regular foods has vastly improved in only a few years and looks to get even better.
“It has to improve,” says Wesley, a diabetes educator at Cooks Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas. “I get teenagers who want to drink regular soda because they can’t stand diet. I have a lot of hope for Splenda because it tastes like the sugar they’ve been missing for all these years.”
Regular Brands and the Glycemic Index
Another point to remember is the importance of counting carbohydrates—including the carbs found in sugar-free foods. As evidenced by the carbohydrate analysis table, some of the sugar-free products have almost as many carbs as the regular brands.
However, regular brands usually have a higher glycemic index than sugar-free products, even if the carb content is almost identical. This can present a substantial benefit for some individuals who are monitoring their glycemic intake.
“I would recommend these foods for people with diabetes, but it’s not a license to eat the whole package,” says Virginia Benepe, a diabetes educator at Cooks Children’s Medical Center.
Benepe has lived with diabetes most of her life, and she was also surprised about the recent improvement of sugar-free foods.
“I haven’t tried a lot of the newer brands—I guess I was hesitant because I remember the old days,” she says, laughing. “But I can’t stress enough that the most important thing is to count carbs, no matter what the food.”
Of course, the whole dietary objective is to consume natural food on a regular basis. But, since snack foods are part of real-world eating, why not choose the lower-carb version if taste will not be significantly sacrificed? Sugar-free foods are getting better every day, and now is the perfect time to give them another chance.