One of my pet peeves as a low-sugar sweets hunter is the misleading nature of products that are technically “sugar free” but that contain a lot of high-glycemic sugar alcohol and/or various amounts of high-glycemic starches. It’s one of the main reasons I believe “diabetic” and “sugar-free” sweets are in dire need of a rebrand. And while the new (2018-2019) FDA food labels potentially help people make better food choices—they show how much sugar in a product is natural vs. how much is added—they still don’t address my pet peeve. [The new labels also show the Percent Daily Value of sugar contained in a product but the very concept of a ‘daily recommended value’ for sugar was initially contested by the FDA as having no scientific basis.]

In any case, and although the new labeling also requires that makers of products marked “sugar free” or “no sugar added”  account for the product’s sugar alcohol in its own category (separate from carbohydrates), the sugar alcohol most often used in these products (and in significant quantities) is maltitol. And consumers may not be aware that maltitol has a Glycemic Index (GI) of 36 and therefore usually only represents a modest reduction in a product’s sugar. (Most sugar alcohols don’t affect blood sugar though sorbitol, xylitol and lactitol range between 5-12 on the GI; table sugar is 65).

Second, the labels do not help gauge how much of a sugar-like impact the high-glycemic refined starches like rice flour, cornstarch, potato and tapioca starches so often present in gluten- and sugar-free products might have on a person. While I’ve been trying to estimate this by looking at the relative placement of these starches in the ingredient list (ingredients are listed by quantity with the first ingredient comprising the largest proportion), it would be handy to have some kind of method for translation.

Without a way to “convert” these starches to sugar, it’s difficult to determine whether products with these starches might undermine efforts to reduce sugar. There are several products Goodbuy would like to feature but we hesitate to do so without being sure that what we’re promoting doesn’t run counter to our mission. We do recommend a product that has 1 gram of tapioca starch per 10 cookies, which we perceive as extremely minimal but, beyond that, we’re still looking for guidance. So if you see something (on this topic) say something (to us, please)!

If there were some way to incorporate this information into a low-carb sweets designation (and for other foods), that might also make it easier to determine a product’s glycemic load—the GI of its ingredients multiplied by the amount of those ingredients, which would definitely be a useful addition to any label. People would then be able to determine at a quick glance whether a product’s load is low (1-10), moderate (11-19) or high (20 plus) per serving.

Altogether then, even with “added sugars” and “sugar alcohol” designations on the new food label, someone could eat a sugar-free cookie with loads of maltitol and/or starch that spikes their blood sugar more than a low-glycemic cookie that contains a small amount of sugar (yet technically still more sugar than the sugar-free cookie, per the food label). In the meantime, let’s hope the new natural vs. added sugars designation helps raise awareness and doesn’t lead some with high blood sugar to assume that a very high-sugar ‘natural’ juice is healthier to drink than a very low-“added” sugar soda.