Are Sugar-Free Foods as Healthy as they Seem?

By Susan Sloane, RPh, CDCES, Contract Clinical Educator with VMS BioMarketing

Have you ever been to the grocery store, desperate to find a “healthy treat”? I sure have! You see the sweets aisle and are drawn to the temptations of the “Sugar Free” section. OMG, you may think: shelves and shelves to choose from without guilt. Chocolate, gummy bears, cakes, and cookies – even sugar-free syrup for pancakes with sugar-free chocolate morsels. No guilt here, you may think. Healthy treats! But are they really?

Let’s take a deeper dive into these foods – even the “keto friendly” ones. Clinical Educators and others who provide education and training for people on their patient journey may use these suggestions to help those whose HCP has recommended modifications to their eating plan.

Craving-causing foods
Eating sweets, even those without added sugars, can cause cravings for more sweets. Artificial sweeteners may be low in calories, but because they impart a sweet taste, they can actually cause you to eat more, according to a number of studies. This can impede weight loss.

One theory about how this works is that overstimulation of sugar receptors from frequent use of these hyper-intense, artificial sweeteners may limit tolerance for more complex tastes.1 That means people who routinely use artificial sweeteners may start to find less intensely sweet foods, such as fruit, less appealing and unsweet foods, such as vegetables, downright unpalatable.

Another interesting study2 has shown some evidence that diet soft drinks are associated with a 67% increased risk for diabetes. Although this may seem counterintuitive, it can be because when using these products, people may feel free to consume more calories through other foods.

Sugar free does not mean fat free, calorie free, or carb free
Besides artificial sweeteners, many sugar-free chocolates and pastries add sugar alcohols for sweetness. Sugar alcohols generally can be spotted because they have -OL at the end of the ingredient. A few examples are mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol. They do add some calories/carbs, but, more importantly, they have a tendency to cause bloating and diarrhea. This is especially true if large portions are consumed. In general, people with gI issues such as irritable bowel syndrome should probably use these with caution.

Many sugar-free products – especially chocolates – add a lot of saturated fats
Be sure to check nutrient labels. They can be as high as 40% saturated fats, which can be just as bad as sugars or potentially worse in people with high cholesterol or heat disease.

“Sugar-free” foods might still contain sugar
Under US labeling standards, foods labeled sugar-free may still contain sugars at less than .5g per serving. It is important to note the serving size, since eating multiple servings could unknowingly add grams of sugar to one’s daily intake.

For the best overall healthy choices when you’re searching for a healthy treat, you might consider a regular dark chocolate product with about 70% dark cocoa content. Pairing this with strawberries, for example, make a moderate portion of this sweet treat a healthy choice. Sugar-containing foods in their natural form, whole fruit, for example, tend to be very nutritious, high in fiber, and low in glycemic load.   

The bottom line: If you're craving something sweet, consider skipping "sugar-free" options and eat what you're really craving in moderation.

1 Harvard Medical School
2 American Diabetes Association