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Sugar-Free Foods: Not the Sweet Choice?

These days, the average American consumes a whopping 22 teaspoons of sugar each day, totaling about 350 calories. Thus, in the context of a national obesity problem, it's no surprise that food manufacturers have begun introducing sugar-free versions of otherwise-guilty pleasures, including cookies, cakes, pudding, sodas, gum, sorbet, chocolates, candies, pie crust and syrup.

Sugar-free "sweets" are an obvious boon for people with diabetes, who have to keep careful tabs on their intake in order to manage their blood sugar levels. But diabetics comprise just under 8% of the U.S. population, whereas close to 30% of Americans say they regularly consume foods that are either sugar-free, reduced-sugar or sweetened with sugar substitutes, says Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst focusing on the food industry at the NPD Group, a market research firm in Chicago.

The people most interested in purchasing sugar-free foods are those who are overweight or obese, according to Barbara Davis, vice president of HealthFocus International, a market research firm in St. Petersburg, Fla.

But consumers who reach for sugarless or reduced-sugar versions of their favorite treats in the hopes of consuming fewer calories and shedding a few pounds should read product labels carefully, says Mary Ann Johnson, professor of foods and nutrition at the University of Georgia in Athens and a spokeswoman for the American Society for Nutrition. "Just because you take the sugar out of something doesn't mean it won't have flour, protein and fat — and provide lots of calories," she says.

Take the sugar-free Hershey Special Dark bar. A 40-gram serving (about one full-sized bar) provides 160 calories; the full-sugar version provides 180 calories. In some instances, the caloric difference between standard and sugar-free versions is even more negligible. Compare, for instance, the 107 calories in two regular Oreos with the 100 calories in two sugar-free Oreos.

Today's sugar-free snacks often get their sweetness from a class of sweeteners called sugar alcohols, which include maltitol, sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol. These are carbohydrates derived often from corn starch, corncobs or even birch wood, according to the Sugar Assn., an industry group.

Because the body can't fully digest or metabolize sugar alcohols, they provide fewer calories: about 1.5 to 3 calories per gram, compared with the 4 calories per gram from sucrose, or table sugar.

The reduced calorie content in sugar alcohols has a flip side, however: "Because we can't absorb them, they can cause diarrhea," Johnson says. (Indeed, many sugar-free food labels warn that excessive consumption "may have a laxative effect.")

And sugar-free foods have a potentially more serious downside, says Dr. Mark Urman, medical director of the Heart Center at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute. Sweet snacks usually are loaded with refined carbohydrates that remain even if the sugar has been removed. Intake of too many of these refined carbs has been linked to increased levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol and a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease, Urman says.

Studies show that people who consume large amounts of sugar tend to eat diets low in calcium, fiber, and certain vitamins and minerals, according to the American Heart Assn. Switching to sugar-free versions of foods does little to remedy such poor dietary choices, says Urman, who is also a board member of the Los Angeles Division of the AHA.

Some research has suggested that consuming artificial sweeteners may also fool the body, causing it to crave more calories than it otherwise would, Urman adds.

Sugar-free foods aren't even a good way to avoid cavities, says Kimberley Harms, a consumer advisor for the American Dental Assn., because the bacteria that cause tooth decay feed not only off of sugar but also off of carbohydrates.

The finer print on some sugar-free snacks (such as Oreos) does alert consumers that they're "not a reduced-calorie food."

But consumer interest in sugar-free foods seems to be growing nonetheless. Says Balzer, "Americans have a difficult time losing weight, and they tend to eat foods with labels that say 'this is better for you' " — regardless of whether it's true.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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