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Sugar Free? Oh, Really?

Updated on October 14, 2012

Did you know that manufacturers can legally place the words “sugar free” on the front of a box of cookies even if it contains sugar? Most don’t realize that the term “sugar free” does not always mean that a product is free from sugar. This term can be placed on products as long as the sugar content is less than 0.5 grams per serving. Furthermore, sugar in this case refers only to sucrose. This means a product can contain a sugar nutritive, such as fructose, and still be labeled sugar free.

As a result of these tricky, little distinctions, many sugar free products contain more carbohydrates than the same product that is not labeled sugar free. What does this mean for diabetics, sugar free dieters, and calorie counters? Well, it means they had better read their labels.

Reading the nutritional label and the ingredients list carefully can clue you in to hidden sugars and excess calories. But, first you must know exactly what it is you are looking at. At this time, there is no distinction between naturally occurring sugars and added sugars on nutritional labels so under the word carbohydrates you will simply find the word “sugars.” Unfortunately, nutritional labels are generally written in grams and many of us have no idea how much that really. Roughly speaking, 15 grams is approximately 1 tablespoon of sugar. The other factor that many of us forget is that the nutritional label is per serving size. Ingredients are listed on products based on weight, from most to least. If one of the first few ingredients in the list is a form of sugar, the product is most likely high in total sugars.

Of course, if there is anything on the label with the word sugar in it (cane sugar, corn sugar, etc.), then there is a pretty sure bet it contains sugar. In addition to the word “sugar” you should look for these other alternative names for added sugar: corn syrup, corn sweetener, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, fruit juice concentrates, maltose, malt syrup, lactose, molasses, cane juice, cane syrup, and sucrose. As a matter of fact, any ingredient with the ending “ose” is likely to be a form of sugar.

A Word on Sweeteners

In the world of sweeteners there are many, many choices. Each of these, however, can fit into one of two categories. These are: nutritive sweeteners and artificial (nonnutritive) sweeteners. Nutritive sweeteners have calories and affect blood glucose. Artificial sweeteners do not.

The most common forms of nutritive sweeteners are sucrose and fructose. These include:

  • Sucrose
  • Glucose
  • Fructose
  • Honey
  • Lactose
  • Xylitol
  • Mannitol
  • Sorbitol
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Hydrogenated starch
  • Hydrolysate
  • Maltitol

Artificial sweeteners are man-made. They tend to be very sweet and they very few, if any calories and carbohydrates to foods. Some examples include:

  • Saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low)
  • Aspartame (NutraSweet)
  • Acesulfame K (Sweet One)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)

It is easy to see why consumers must educate themselves thoroughly, particularly if they have specific health conditions. Regarding these sweeteners, please keep in mind that although some of the nonnutritive sweeteners do not add calories and carbohydrates, they can have other major health consequences. As always, consult your physician with any questions or concerns.

To learn more about sugar and its affect on the body click here.


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    • Dianemae profile image

      Dianemae 5 years ago

      You are right! As a diabetic I have to read labels very carefully. Many factors go into deciding if a 'sugar free' prodct is right for my diet.