Sugar-Free Ain’t What It Used to Be:

If you have been disappointed by the taste of sugar-free candies and cookies in past years, try them again. Some newer products taste so good that they are marketed to anyone who is willing to eat a little healthier, as long as this doesn’t mean having to give up foods they enjoy. Many packages don’t even mention diabetes benefits.

In the wild world of nutrition advertising today, it’s hard to know what to believe about supposedly healthy products. New sugar-free products made with sugar replacers don’t claim to cure cancer, boost energy or improve your sex life. Their benefits are basic and they are believable—they have fewer calories, do not cause tooth decay and do not complicate glucose control. Here are seven short and simple things you need to know about sugar replacers.

1. Sugar replacers are used for very different reasons than intense sweeteners.

Intense sweeteners such as aspartame are used in tiny amounts; they are excellent sugar substitutes when only sweetness is needed, as for the soft drinks. Sugar replacers replace sugar, cup for cup. They not only provide mild sweetness, but they also fill the space or volume usually filled by sugar. Therefore, they are the sweeteners that need to be used to make sugar-free products such as cookies, hard candies, chocolates, fudge, breath mints, cough drops and throat lozenges.

2. Sugar replacers are not calorie-free.

Sugar replacers have fewer calories than sugar because they are not completely digested and/or only partially absorbed in the small intestines. For this reason, products that contain sugar replacers are usually labeled as “sugar-free” with “fewer calories” or “reduced calories.” All of them do, however, have calories.

3. Sugar replacers are frequently used in products that are eaten between meals.

Between-meal usage is important for two reasons:

  • Sugar replacers do not promote dental caries because bacteria in the mouth cannot easily convert them into decay—causing acids, and
  • Sugar replacers usually have very little or no effect on glucose or insulin levels because less is absorbed and absorption does not happen rapidly, as it does with sugar.

4. Count sugar replacers as half for diabetic exchange grams.

The “total carbohydrates” number on nutrition labels tells you the grams in a serving as eaten. But, for people who have diabetes, what is important is the amount that affects insulin.

Although the amount absorbed differs among sugar replacers, diabetes educators say that counting half the carbohydrate grams on labels is a reasonable estimate. However, if you must monitor carbohydrates very precisely, consult your diabetes management team about counting sugar-replacer carbohydrates.

Daily Values for a Typical Sugar-Free Hard Candy:

Nutrition Facts

Serving Size: 4 pieces (15 g)

Servings per Container: About 5

Amount per serving

Calories 35
Total Fat 0 g
Sodium 0 mg
Total Carbohydrates 15 g
Sugar Alcohols 15 g
Protein 0 g


Ingredients: isomalt, maltitol, malic acid, natural & artificial flavors, citric acid, aspartame

5. Sugar replacers are not sugar, and they do not contain alcohol.

When a product contains only one sugar replacer, its name appears under “Total Carbohydrates” on labels. If two or more are used, their total grams are shown as sugar alcohols. This term correctly describes sugar replacers’ chemical structure but is confusing to those who aren’t scientists.

6. Many sugar replacers’ names end in “-ol.”

The ingredients list in nutrition labels tells which sugar replacers are in a product. Many people are familiar with xylitol, sorbitol and maltitol. But hydrogenated starch hydrolysates and isomalt,* a relatively new sugar replacer in North America, do not have the “-ol” suffix.

7. Go easy, especially at first.

Some people, especially if they are unaccustomed to eating low-digestible carbohydrates, might have more gas than usual and softer, perhaps even more watery, stools. The reason is simple. Undigested carbohydrates that stays in the intestine pulls water from body cells back into the intestine. This is why high-fiber foods, bran and prunes help relieve constipation. Sugar replacers can sometimes do the same thing in some people.

Try smaller portions at first. People who are initially sensitive usually have no problem if they gradually increase the amount eaten.

A Tool for Tasty, Healthful Eating

The new “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” recommend that everyone moderate the amount of sugar eaten, but sweetness adds a lot of pleasure to life. And if healthy foods don’t taste good, few people will follow the experts’ advice.

Sugar replacers can be a tool for making the moderate-sugars goal more easily attainable and they have bonus benefits for people who have diabetes. Now that we have sugar-free products that taste as good as those made with sugar, eating healthier can be a bit more fun. Sugar replacers may not be silver bullets to make the pounds melt away, but they can be a tool for healthier, and still enjoyable, eating.

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