Did you know that a food manufacturer can place a “sugar Free” label on the front of a box of cookies or a cake although the product contains sugar? And this practice is completely legal. How can this be?

“Sugar-Free” products

Yes, a food manufacturer can attach a “Sugar Free” label to a product that contains sugar. The explanation is quite simple and as I said before, it is totally legal. This is because the term “sugar free” means that the product contains less than 0.5 grams of sugar in a serving, and “sugar” in this case is defined as sucrose.

So, here you have it: “Sugar free” simply means that the product does not contain table sugar or cane sugar. The manufacturer can add fructose or any other nutritive sweetener (the ones that have calories) and still call it “sugar free”. Amazing how food manufacturers can trick us.

As a result, it is common to find products that are sugar free that actually contain more carbohydrates than the same product that does not claim to be sugar free. If you have diabetes, this type of sugar-free product will raise your blood glucose more than regular version of the food will do.

How about fat-free products?

The same applies for many foods that claim to be fat-free. These products have definitely less than 0.5 grams of fat, but when the manufacturer removes the fat, he may add simple carbohydrates. So, some fat-free and some sugar-free products will have more carbohydrates and will raise your blood sugar levels more than the regular items.

Sugar free is not always calorie free

Keep in mind also that a sugar-free food is not always calorie free, low in calories, or low in simple carbohydrates. Some products may even have sugar listed on the food label although they really belong in the category of sugar free foods.

An example would be milk. In the food label you will see that a serving of milk contains about 13 grams of sugar. This sugar does not refer to added sugar, table sugar, or sucrose; it refers to the natural sugars milk contains, lactose. The point here is that because there is a label attached to the box announcing to the world that the product is sugar free, doesn’t mean it is sugar free.

Read the label

The best way to know what the sugar content is of the food you are buying is to read the label. Find the total carbohydrates, the calories, and the sugar. As you look at any food label on a package, in the middle section you will find the information on carbohydrates, fat, protein and other nutrients. This section has the greatest amount of information for the person with diabetes who is trying to analyze the connection between food and glucose levels.


There are two types of sweeteners on the market today: those that have calories, called nutritive sweeteners, and those that have no calories, called artificial or nonnutritive sweeteners. Only the nutritive sweeteners affect blood glucose directly, but you still need to note the other ingredients in foods that use artificial sweeteners.

Nutritive sweeteners

Sucrose and fructose are the most common nutritive sweeteners used; both have calories and as a result, they have an effect in your blood glucose levels. Here is a list of the most frequently used nutritive sweeteners:

  • Sucrose (white sugar). It is inexpensive and it is used in many products
  • Glucose. It is not very sweet and as a result its use is limited. It is mainly used in candies because it is very smooth.
  • Fructose. It is sweeter than sucrose in cold liquids, but in warm liquids and solid foods is as sweet as sucrose.
  • Honey. Nutrition wise is similar to sucrose.
  • Lactose. It is the sugar found in milk. It use is limited because it is not very sweet.
  • Sorbitol, mannitol. They are sugar alcohols. Although the name may be misleading, they are not alcohols. They are the liquids produced from processing sucrose, glucose and starches but hey also occur naturally in fruits. They are about half as sweet as sucrose, which limits their use.
    They are not absorbed by the body, so they add fewer calories and carbohydrates to the food. When use in large quantities can cause diarrhea, gas, and bloating because they are not completely digested.
  • Xylitol, maltitol. They are also sugar alcohols but because they are as sweet as sucrose they are more widely used, especially in candies, baked goods, and jellies. since they are not completely absorbed, they can also cause diarrhea, gas, and bloating when taken in large quantities.
  • Hydrogenated starch, hydrolysate. It is the “complex carbohydrate” of sugar alcohols. It is made by injecting hydrogen molecules to sugar alcohols. Used in candies and along with nonnutritive sweeteners.
  • High fructose corn syrup. Widely used in beverages and many foods, is a sweetener made of corn. It is very cheap to produce and transport, so it is the preferred sweetener by food and beverage manufacturers.

Nonnutritive sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are man-made, very sweet products commonly used in foods that have reduced calories and in beverages. They are known as nonnutritive sweeteners because they add very few, if any calories and carbohydrates to foods. Here are some of the major artificial sweeteners:

  • Saccharin (Sweet’ N Low). It provides no calories. It is 200 to 700 times sweeter than sucrose but has a bitter, metallic aftertaste.
  • Aspartame (NutraSweet). Because heat deteriorates the sweetness, they can only be used in cold foods and drinks. It is 160 to 220 times sweeter than sucrose. People with phenylketonuria cannot use this sweetener.
  • Acesulfame K (Sweet One). It is a combination of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, sulphur, and potassium. it is 200 times sweeter than sucrose and is stable under heat.
  • Sucralose (Splenda). It is the only nonnutritive sweetener made from sugar. It is produced by changes some molecules around. It is used as a sugar replacement and an additive in various desserts and nonalcoholic beverages. It is 600 times sweeter than sucrose. It can stand heat.

The bottom line

The bottom line here is that we need to read food labels and be informed of what the terms used by food manufacturers mean. Nowadays, more than ever, we need to be educated consumers. Also keep in mind that although some of the nonnutritive sweeteners do not add calories and carbohydrates, they can have other health consequences.


I am Andy Carpenter and I would start by saying that I have a Bachelor Degree in Nutrition Science conferred by California State University, Los Angeles and that I am certified as a Registered Dietitian.

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