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The scoop on sugar-free foods

Emma Stirling
Emma Stirling APD

For many years people with diabetes were told to cut out sugar completely. So it’s not surprising that we saw a huge increase in the number of products, from chewing gum to yoghurt, sweetened with alternatives. But in recent times ‘sugar free’ has come under the spotlight and the story for good health, may turn out to not be as sweet.

Sugar free does not mean calorie free. Just because your chocolate bar says ‘sugar free’ doesn’t mean that it is necessarily low in calories or will miraculously help you melt that fat away. Be careful to look at the total profile of a food by reading the nutrition information panel. If you bypass this step, you may be falling into the trap of a health halo – latching on to one prominent message and giving yourself permission to overeat or over compensate. Just because you were ‘good’ and had a diet cola does not automatically make way for a ‘sugar-free’ chocolate brownie indulgence.

Other concerns over sugar-free foods have surfaced. Some researchers have suggested that foods with artificial sweeteners may trigger hunger and cravings, but more studies are needed. And nutritionists have reported caffeine addictions when people get into the habit of swilling down large quantities of diet cola beverages all day. But it’s the new insights into dental health and that ‘sugar free’ label that’s got everyone talking.

Sugar-free foods are not all tooth friendly. We know that dental cavities can form when bacteria in your mouth convert sugars into acid, which then breaks down tooth enamel. So it would make sense that sugar-free foods would be a top choice for dental health. Indeed, some alternative sweeteners like xylitol have been shown in clinical trials to be ‘tooth friendly’. The problem is that you can’t make this same assumption for all sweeteners as a group. You see another sweetener sorbitol may be converted by bacteria in your mouth to acid. Furthermore, a recent study published in the British Dental Journal has shown that many sugar-free foods may in fact have a high acid content to start with. The presence of flavours, preservatives and other additives may make the food or drink highly acidic, which would cancel out the sugar-free benefits and could still lead to dental erosion.

The scoop Don’t panic if you enjoy sugar-free foods, these are just some new insights to keep in mind when balancing your healthy choices. Enjoying a sugar-free treat with a meal, rather than on its own and regularly brushing and flossing your teeth can minimise acid contact with your teeth.


Or perhaps you can satisfy your sweet tooth with a little sugar? Many studies in the past 20 years show that a moderate amount of sugar (e.g. 30–50 grams or 6–10 teaspoons a day) does not adversely affect BGLs (if you have diabetes) nor lead to unwanted weight gain. Keep in mind, however, that this moderate amount includes all sources of refined sugar you consume over the day – white, brown, raw, treacle, golden syrup, soft drinks, desserts, cookies, breakfast cereals or a teaspoon of sugar added to a cup of tea or coffee. For a sweet, icy treat with a healthy twist, try my recipe for Yogurt Pavlova Popsicles!

Emma Stirling is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and health writer with over ten years experience writing for major publications. She is editor of The Scoop on Nutrition – a blog by expert dietitians. Check it out for hot news bites and a healthy serve of what’s in flavour.