Foods that are high in sugar spike your blood sugar. That is not something you want if you have insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, or trouble losing weight. So what happens when you remove the sugar?
There are sugar-free versions of many high-sugar snacks. But do these foods do what you hope they will do? In other words, can you keep eating candy and treats without the troublesome blood sugar spikes? That is what I set out to discover using my continuous glucose monitor to collect the facts.
Blood Sugar Impact of Sugar-Free Snacks – At-A-Glance
- Consistent blood sugar spikes caused by frequently eating high-sugar foods require your body to produce large amounts of insulin. Over time, this can cause insulin resistance.
- Sugar alcohols are often added to sugar-free snacks because they are sweet but don’t have to be counted as added sugar.
- Sugar alcohols are poorly digested and absorbed, so they can be subtracted from the total carb count of food. Total carbs minus sugar alcohol and fiber equals net carbs.
- Not all sugar alcohols are created equal. Some can be absorbed and cause a rise in blood glucose. For instance, maltitol has a glycemic index of 35, and maltitol syrup has a glycemic index of 52.
Blood Sugar vs. Sugar-Free Snacks: I Ran the Tests [Video]
In this video, you’ll learn…
- What good and bad blood sugar readings look like.
- The problem with sugar alcohols.
- The test results of sugar-free candy and “keto” candy.
The Problem with Blood Sugar Spikes
Every minute of the day, your body is working to maintain a stable blood sugar – or blood glucose – level. It uses hormones, like insulin and glucagon, to adjust the level so there is never too much or too little present.
Because of these constant adjustments, it is normal to see your blood sugar gently rise and fall throughout the day, and depending on what you eat or certain lifestyle factors, even a healthy individual will experience occasional blood sugar spikes.
Your body easily handles occasional spikes. But if you consistently spike your blood sugar levels with high-sugar foods, your body must produce large amounts of insulin to deal with it. Over time, this can cause insulin resistance, which is a condition in which your cells stop responding to insulin properly.
Because insulin is the hormone that moves energy-rich glucose into your cells, this resistance leaves you feeling low on energy, hungry, and at risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
Therefore, when your goal is to control your weight or blood sugar, you want to eat foods that do not cause blood sugar spikes. That is an easy concept to grasp, but when it comes to playing it out in our sugar-filled world, there are obvious challenges.
One of the most glaring is that sugar is a main ingredient in many fun foods, like cookies, cakes, and candies.
Some ” solutions ” pique our hope, namely sugar-free candies and packaged snacks. But do they deliver on their promise? Can we keep enjoying these treats without worrying about the consequences of blood sugar spikes?
You can’t know for sure unless you monitor your blood sugar level. I used a non-prescription CGM (continuous glucose monitor) from Levels to see how snacks that are promoted as sugar-free affect my metabolism. To learn more about utilizing CGMs, watch the video above.
Running The Test
The sugar-free items I chose to test were sugar-free pecan delights and sugar-free keto taffy.
I tested each snack at 7 AM because I was in a fasted state, so there was no other food in my system to skew my results. Testing at this time also eliminated confounding variables like exercise. I did drink black coffee on both testing days.
To be considered “blood-sugar friendly,” I want to see two things after consuming the snacks. First, I want to see a minimal blood sugar spike immediately after eating it. Second, I want a stable or gentle blood sugar rise and fall during the two hours after consumption.
The intensity of that first spike shows me how the food affects me. The degree of the rise and fall over time shows me how my body is handling the food.
Sugar-Free Chocolate Candy vs. Blood Sugar
On the first day of testing, I ate one serving of the sugar-free pecan delights. When I turned the package over, I saw that there were zero grams of added sugar. However, there are 14 grams of sugar alcohol.
Sugar alcohols are a favorite ingredient for food manufacturers to add because they are sweet but don’t have to be counted as added sugar. And they are poorly digested and absorbed, so they can be more or less dismissed in the overall carbohydrate content of the food.
This is where net carbs come into play. Net carbs are a calculation based on the fact that some carbohydrates, like fiber and sugar alcohols, cannot be digested and absorbed by the body, or they are poorly absorbed. Because of that, food companies are allowed to subtract those low-impact carbs from total carbs, leaving us with net carbs.
The nutrition facts for the candy showed that there are 17 total grams of carbohydrates per serving, with 1 of those grams being fiber and 14 being sugar alcohol grams. This food was not marketed to the keto diet crowd, but if it were, you would see the food label boast of having just 2 net carbs per serving.
But here’s the tricky part. Not all sugar alcohols are created equal. Some can be absorbed through the small intestine and cause a rise in blood glucose. Maltitol is one of those tricky sugar alcohols.
According to Healthline, maltitol has a glycemic index of 35.
That is lower than table sugar, which has a glycemic index of 65. However, if you recall, the glycemic index is the measure of how quickly a food raises your blood sugar level.
Because maltitol has a glycemic index, that means it is getting into your bloodstream and causing a rise in your blood sugar. That is exactly what these subtracted carbohydrates are NOT supposed to do.
The sugar-free candy that I tested has maltitol listed three times on the ingredient list. One of which is maltitol syrup, which we will discuss in a moment.
But for now, if you are already seeing some red flags concerning this candy, you are justified in that thinking. But there is no way of knowing until we run the test. So let’s get to that.
Test Results: Sugar-Free Candy
On Day One of testing, I got up at 6 AM, had a cup of coffee with my husband, and then ate two sugar-free pecan delights at 7 AM. In case you’re wondering, they were delicious. But I will add to that story in a couple of minutes.
A big advantage of wearing a CGM is that you get continual analysis of your blood sugar without a need for a series of finger pricks. It is very easy to see how food affects you.
After two hours, I saw that the candies caused a blood glucose rise of 35 mg/dL.
To give you an idea, The Levels team’s optimal goal for a blood sugar rise after eating is less than 30mg/dL.
This candy caused a 35-point increase in me. Keep in mind that I am now an insulin-sensitive person, meaning my cells were willing to receive the excess blood sugar that ended up in my blood after eating this snack.
If you have insulin resistance or diabetes, your rise may be higher or stay high longer. So while my results offer a good example, it is always best to monitor your own response, so you can really dial in the food choices that help you maintain that stable blood sugar level you want throughout the day.
Keto Candy vs. Blood Sugar
Low carb and keto dieters are also interested in eating for blood sugar stability because that leads to low insulin levels that encourage fat loss.
The second sugar-free snack I tested was sugar-free taffy. The package label boldly boasts the word “Keto” and shares that the snack has 0 grams of sugar and 0 grams of net carbs.
When we turn the package over, we learn how those 0-gram claims are possible. The 20 grams of carbohydrates per serving were wiped away by the 20 grams of sugar alcohol.
There’s more: the main ingredient in this keto taffy is maltitol syrup. That’s different than plain maltitol.
Remember that I said maltitol had a glycemic index of 35. Maltitol syrup has a glycemic index of 52. To put that into perspective, the glycemic index of table sugar is 65.
That means that the blood sugar impact of maltitol syrup is very close to that of sugar, yet because it is classified as a sugar alcohol, it does not need to be counted as sugar or a carb.
Also, remember that I said the pecan delights were yummy. They were. The pieces of taffy were not my thing. They were super sweet. The sweetness of both snacks came, in large part, from sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols are known to cause stomach upset and bloating.
That is no joke. I was not feeling good on my testing days, and the symptoms did not show up until hours after I ate the candies. I was thankful that I only had to eat one serving of them. So, keep that in the back of your mind when you are deciding if a sugar-free snack is worth trying.
When I tested the sugar-free keto taffy, I saw an immediate effect with a glucose increase of 40 mg/dL over the 2-hour period after eating it. That is, again, not the worst, but not what you want if you are looking to improve blood sugar control or lose weight with your keto diet.
Like the sugar-free chocolate candy, the keto taffy caused a blood sugar rise, despite having no added sugar.
Was the rise as high as we would have seen from the full-sugar versions of these snacks? Probably not, but the takeaway is that if a package label says the product is sugar-free, that does not mean care-free.
Thank you for reading and have a wonderful week!