Valentine’s Day is the single biggest day for chocolate sales. Among the many kinds of chocolate now available for gift giving are sugar-free as well as dairy-free varieties. Today, sugar-free chocolates may also be labeled “lower carb.”
Almost everyone loves chocolate because it provides sensual pleasure with its fabulous taste, texture and aroma. Humanity’s love affair with chocolate dates back to about 2000 BC, when it was revered by the Aztecs and Mayans as a food of the gods and thought to possess romantic powers. Europe did not begin to appreciate chocolate until the 1500s.
Everyone’s Favorite Vegetable
Many health professionals, including myself and Susan Love, MD, author of “Susan Love’s Menopause and Hormone Book,” consider chocolate a vegetable. After all, it is made from the cocoa bean, which provides dietary fiber and is full of antioxidants that keep cells healthy. Chocolate contains a significant amount of the mineral magnesium, which assists in blood glucose management, helps stabilize moods, provides quality sleep and is necessary for the health of our bones and heart. Compared with milk or white chocolate, dark chocolate provides the greatest benefit because it contains the most cocoa butter. Read labels carefully to choose chocolates that have “cocoa,” “cocoa mass,” and “cocoa butter” as the leading ingredient and the least amount of sugar and other additives.
Today, many diabetics find sugar-free chocolates appealing. But these confections are not totally innocent. Does a “sugar free” label on your chocolate-hazelnut truffle mean decreased health benefits?
To make chocolate “sugar free,” sugar alcohols, usually maltitol, are used in place of sucrose or table sugar. These sugar alcohols, known as polyols, have fewer calories and tend to have less of an impact on blood glucose than does regular sugar. However, many people’s digestive systems can tolerate only a small amount of these foods before they experience a laxative effect. Children, the elderly and anyone with a sensitive gastrointestinal system (for example, people with irritable bowel syndrome or gastroparesis) may find that these products exacerbate their symptoms. Some sugar-free chocolates also contain calorie-free artificial sweeteners such as Splenda or Equal.
Regular chocolates and sugar-free chocolates are both high in calories and fat, mostly saturated fat, which is typically associated with heart disease. However, we now know that not all saturated fats are created equal. One-third of the saturated fat in dark (not milk) chocolate contains a unique saturated fat called stearic acid, which does not seem to contribute to the formation of harmful plaque in the arteries.
So, is sugar-free chocolate recommended for diabetics? This question requires further consideration. Is your goal to eat less carbohydrate? Fewer calories? To use less insulin? Eating a moderate amount of chocolate isn’t usually a problem. In fact, one secret of longevity may be to savor small amounts of chocolate a little bit at a time.
Have a Happy Valentine’s Day!