Have you had that moment yet of walking into a grocery store and being super excited to see several shelves of the cookie aisle—or maybe even an entire picnic table in the bakery section—devoted to products marked “sugar free”? Even after four years on a low-sugar diet, I still get my hopes raised and dashed like this on occasion simply because of wishful thinking.
Most of these so called sugar-free products, including sugar-free candies and some sugar-free ice creams, are made with maltitol, a sugar alcohol that doesn’t actually reduce your sugar intake by much. While maltitol’s carbs appear as ‘sugar alcohol’ on a product’s nutrition label—under carbs, or sometimes in its own separate category—as they should, unlike other sugar alcohols such as erythritol (zero on the glycemic index) or xylitol (7 on the index), these carbs only really represent a 25% reduction in the glycemic impact you’d normally get from plain old sugar (65 on the GI)! Such products should be labeled “25% less sugar” at best. Not only that, many contain flours and starches that raise blood sugar, and a slew of ingredients and preservatives that are known to be unhealthy. A frustrating phenomenon to say the least.
So, what gives?
On one hand, the markets for healthier, lower-sugar and keto products are growing (because of awareness of sugar’s health impacts). On the other, so is demand for “diabetic” food (because diabetes is skyrocketing). But it seems these two markets remain separate and are marketed to as if they have totally different audiences. And I believe that in the past, they did. My not yet scientifically proven theory—call it “diabetic food market capture” —says this occurred because for so long, high blood sugar was seen as a relatively uncommon medical condition, not often publicly acknowledged, enabling makers and marketers to determine their offerings, and consumers to think they were simply lucky enough to find any sweet they were told they could eat.
Even today—with prediabetics and diabetics no longer existing in the shadows, and with consumers able to educate themselves—you’ll find so many mail order “sugar-free” options online that seem to be from the pre-Internet era, as if they belonged in a printed catalogue in a doctor’s office—intended for a long shelf life and never exposed to market competition which would have forced their improvement. “Diabetic chocolate” for example, cannot match the quality of the almost-no-sugar dark chocolates out there even at the same price and is usually sugary anyway because of maltitol, not to mention loaded with fillers like extra oils.
The irony is that the ‘diabetic’ food market is actually hampered partly because of its use of artificial sweeteners. Meanwhile, the explosion of recipes that allow people to make alternative sweets at home, and the uptake of sweeteners such as stevia, has helped fill the gap, as have healthy versions of what the diabetic market offers that can be found in “health”, “low sugar” and “keto” product categories.
Can “diabetic” and “sugar-free” sweets be overhauled and rebranded? Possibly, but it seems far easier to create a “LSLC” designation for sweets that meets low-sugar, low-carb standards in keeping with high-quality, homemade sweets. Small producers are a force for rebranding as they scale and their products become mainstream. Such a designation could even include criteria indicating an absence of preservatives, etc. I believe we can move in this direction. In the meantime, don’t be taken in by what’s “sugar free.”