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.
The people most interested in purchasing sugar-free foods are those who are overweight or obese'.
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. 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.
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.
And sugar-free foods have a potentially more serious downside. 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.
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.
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.