I couldn’t believe it. Right there on the grocery store shelf was a mint chocolate candy bar with no sugar. I was so excited I almost ate it before checking out. Three hours later, however, I felt a lot less enthusiastic about this product. Even with no sugar, it had somehow caused my blood glucose level to skyrocket. How had this happened?
Like so many hopeful consumers before me, I found out the hard way that “no sugar” does not necessarily mean “no calories” or “no carbohydrate.” Had I read the Nutrition Facts panel on my candy bar or even read the ingredients list, I might have realized that this treat, even though sugar-free, would have an effect on my blood glucose level.
Understanding label claims
There are label terms and claims that have specific meanings and that can help guide your food choices. There are also label claims that have no legal meaning. No matter what the claim on the front of the package, however, it’s worth turning it over and reading the Nutrition Facts panel for the specifics on how a food will affect your blood glucose level and fit into your diabetes meal plan.
Here are some label claims that have a specific, legal meaning:
Sugar free. Foods bearing this claim must have less than 0.5 grams of sugar per serving. However, they may contain carbohydrate from other sources.
No added sugar, No sugar added, Without added sugar. These claims mean that no sugar or ingredients that contain sugar such as fruit juice or applesauce are added to a food during processing or packing. Additionally, the processing itself cannot increase the sugar content of the food, and the product that the food is replacing must normally contain added sugars.
Reduced sugar. Foods bearing this claim must have at least 25% less sugar per serving than a comparable reference food. For example, reduced-sugar ice cream would have at least 25% less sugar than regular ice cream.
The following terms have been invented by food manufacturers to suggest that their products contribute few grams of carbohydrate to the diet, but none of them has been defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so they have no legal meaning: net carbs, impact carbs, effective carbs, low carb, reduced carb, and carb free.
Food manufacturers usually calculate the “net,” “impact,” or “effective” carbs by subtracting all of the grams of fiber, all of the grams of sugar alcohols (see “Low-Carbohydrate Comparison”), and all of the grams of glycerine (also known as glycerin and glycerol) from the total carbohydrate amount. While it’s true that fiber is not absorbed and does not affect blood glucose levels, most diabetes nutrition experts recommend subtracting grams of fiber from total carbohydrate only if there are more than 5 grams of fiber per serving. Sugar alcohols, on the other hand, do get at least partially absorbed, do contain calories, and do affect blood glucose levels. And glycerine, which is used both to sweeten foods and to make them moist, provides as many calories per gram as sugar and is considered a carbohydrate by the FDA. However, many food manufacturers contend that glycerine has a negligible effect on blood glucose levels.
Sugar-free or “low-carb” foods aren’t necessarily all bad. Some may have fewer grams of carbohydrate than their regular counterparts and may fit well into your meal plan. Some may be significantly lower in calories. But it’s important to know what’s in them and to understand how they can affect your blood glucose control if you’re going to include them in your diet.