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Being Wise About "Sugar-Free" Foods in Diabetes Meal Planning

What You Should Know About Sugar-Free Foods


Updated July 23, 2009

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Foods advertised as “sugar-free” are what some people with diabetes live on. The word “free” implies that you can eat more of the food without raising blood sugar or adding extra calories. But that is often not the case. Because food is such an important part of managing blood sugar, you should be wise when choosing sugar-free products. Here are the facts:


A “sugar-free” food does not have any sucrose (refined sugar) in it. But “sugar-free” is not the same as carbohydrate-free. Any type of carbohydrate, including sugar, can raise your blood glucose.

Artificial Sweeteners

Many sugar-free products contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (NutraSweet or Equal) or Sucralose (Splenda). These artificial sweeteners have no carbohydrates and contain no calories.

Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohol is a product derived naturally from fruits and vegetables that is also used in foods to a sweet flavor. There are several types of sugar alcohols and each contains calories and carbohydrates. Because they are not completely absorbed and metabolized by the body, they provide fewer calories and tend to raise blood sugar less than typical carbohydrates would. The most common sugar alcohols include:

  • Sorbitol
  • Mannitol
  • Xylitol
  • Altitol
  • Lactitol

No Sugar Added

When a product says “No sugar added” this means no additional sugar was added to the food during processing and contains no high-sugar ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup. But, the food might still contain a significant number of carbohydrates, which can raise blood sugar.

Free Foods

”Free foods” are those that have fewer than 5 grams of carbohydrate and less than 20 calories per serving. They are considered “free” because you can eat them within reason and not see a significant rise in your blood sugar. Examples of free foods include:

  • Diet soda
  • Many vegetables (celery, lettuce, spinach)
  • Sugar-free gelatin


Sugar Alcohol Fact Sheet. International Food Information Council. Accessed July 16, 2009. http://www.ific.org/publications/factsheets/sugaralcoholfs.cfm

Take a Closer Look at the Label. American Diabetes Association. Accessed July 16, 2009. http://www.diabetes.org/nutrition-and-recipes/nutrition/foodlabel/closer-look.jsp

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