Sugar-Free Labels Can Be Deceptive

The only thing I thought I knew about diabetes in the beginning was that I was not supposed to have sugar anymore. Other than that I was completely ignorant.

The idea of never eating another chocolate-covered almond threw me into a real pity party. Then one day I was standing at the pharmacy counter waiting for a prescription. Looking around I saw rows of candy with “sugar free” in big letters on the packages.


People with diabetes could still have candy? Wonderful! I grabbed a chocolate bar and stuck it in the bag with my diabetes medicine.

That candy bar did not make it home. I ate it in the car. It was delicious, with no bitter aftertaste and no guilt.

If you have tried sugar-free candy, you know what happened later. In a few hours I had awful stomach pains and gas. My first thought was, “what is diabetes doing to me now?”

The problem was not diabetes. It was maltitol.

Maltitol and sugar-free labels
Many of us with diabetes have learned the hard way about sugar alcohols like maltitol. These modern sweeteners are usually made from sugar by fermentation or chemical reactions.

Because it is no longer considered sugar, maltitol can be added to things like candy and other desserts to make them “diabetes friendly.” The makers can claim their product is sugar free.

Sugar alcohols are popular because they have no bitter aftertaste like most other artificial sweeteners. But I’ve stopped buying sugar-free candy with maltitol. Here is why:

At 2.1 calories per gram, maltitol has a little over half the calories of sugar (which is 4 calories per gram). But maltitol syrup has a glycemic index of 52, which is not that much better than table sugar’s glycemic index of 60.

What does that mean to you? Your pancreas perceives maltitol as sugar, raising your insulin needs. Like sugar, maltitol is a carbohydrate.

You have to be careful when reading the sugar-free label on candies and desserts, because many of these items contain maltitol. Read the ingredients of any diabetes-friendly package, and you will probably find this sugar alcohol listed. It is often in sugar-free cough drops too.

We have to remember that most carbohydrates are effectively sugar to people with diabetes. If you developed Type 2 diabetes, you must learn to read the ingredients and nutrition labels instead of relying solely on the sugar-free label.

Be cautious when reading labels
High-glycemic carbohydrates are not very different from sugar. That is our bottom line when choosing packaged foods. For me this has been hard. So many things look good until you read the nutrition labels and ingredient lists.

So, did I give up on candy and desserts? Not at all.

I learned to pass over many of the sugar-free candies and instead to pick a Dove dark chocolate at roughly 40 calories. Dark chocolate is actually good for you, but you have to limit the amount.

One piece with five almonds is as satisfying as that old candy bar used to be, and it gives me antioxidants and minerals that help control diabetes. The secret, though, is to stop there.

Make your own desserts
If you make it, you control what is in it. Great recipes for comfort foods are out there. Brownies, cookies, pumpkin pie, anything you want to enjoy this holiday season can be made into diabetes-friendly food, and desserts you make yourself will be a hundred times better than anything you can find packaged.

Better choices for sugarless sweeteners are available to you. Have you tried erythritol? It is the one of the best sugar alcohols, with fewer calories, no glycemic impact, and little to no stomach issues afterward when eaten in small amounts.

You can find erythritol online and in some stores. I like this sugar alcohol better than most artificial sweeteners because it has no bitter aftertaste. You may also want to try using natural sweeteners like applesauce and pineapple juice.

Even with diabetes, you can enjoy the holidays. I wish you all the best.

  • Paul Scott Pruett

    A correction. You said, “We have to remember that most carbohydrates are effectively sugar to people with diabetes.” They are effectively sugar to *all* people. The experience of those with diabetes is a good measure of what is healthy for the rest of the population, too. It is good for us to moderate our consumption of those things with a high glycemic index. If not, we risk developing insulin resistance (as I did) and looking at type II diabetes.