The skinny on sugar

Eat Good, Topics, What You Should Know

If you are someone living with diabetes and are trying to eat healthier, watching your carbohydrate intake will be part of the process. Carbohydrates are essential food nutrients that your body turns into glucose to fuel your body. Complex carbs burn more steadily and are less likely to cause blood glucose levels to spike. These include fruits, vegetables, beans and whole-grain products such as brown rice and oatmeal. Simple carbs are quickly broken down in the body, resulting in a fast spike then drop in blood glucose levels. Simple carbs can occur naturally in fruit and milk or during processing where sugar is added to products such as soda, sweets and baked goods.

There are many options to add sweetness to your food, but you also need to know which products can impact your blood glucose levels. But the topic of sugar substitutes can be confusing. Artificial sweeteners may be derived from naturally occurring plants or herbs and marketed as "natural" even though they're processed or refined and may contain other sweeteners.  

Being a savvy consumer will be your best defense. Become familiar with the nutrition facts label. Just because a food is marketed as sugar-free, it doesn't mean its calorie-free or carbohydrate-free.  Reaching for whole foods such as fruits and vegetables will provide the most nutrition. But you can also satisfy your sweet tooth by finding healthier alternatives and indulging occasionally and in moderation. 

Natural Sweeteners

Natural sweeteners are sugar substitutes that are often promoted as healthier options than sugar or other artificial sweeteners. These include honey, molasses, maple syrup and fruit juices. Even though these products are considered “natural” they may often undergo processing. 

For example, honey has been consumed by humans for thousands of years and research shows that it contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities. But it is probably not the best alternative for managing blood glucose levels. Honey contains slightly more carbohydrates and more calories per teaspoon than granulated sugar. Honey is generally sweeter than sugar and while you may use less, any calories and carbohydrates you save will be minimal.

Sugar Substitutes

Sugar substitutes are considered nonnutritive artificial sweeteners, meaning the product contains little to no calories in a serving. They are typically sweeter than sugar and won’t impact blood glucose levels.  The FDA reviews sugar substitutes and has approved many products that they recognize as safe for the public. Examples include: 

  • Advantame
  • Aspartame (Equal®)
  • Luo Han Guo fruit extracts (Monk fruit)
  • Neotame
  • Saccharin (Sweet’n Low®)
  • Steviol glycosides (Truvia®)
  • Sucralose (Splenda®)

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that can be manufactured as well as occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables. While sugar alcohols generally aren't used when you prepare food at home, they can be found in many foods labeled "sugar free" or "no sugar added.”  Sugar alcohols are still a form of carbohydrate and can impact blood glucose levels. You will want to check the nutrition facts label for carbohydrates and calories. The label may list the specific name such as sorbitol or isomalt or may use the general term "sugar alcohol.”