Feb 26, 2019

The reality of sugar-free products

Products that are being promoted as "Sugar-free", "no-added-sugar" are on the rise. As people are getting aware of the consequences of high sugar consumption, food industry wants to tap into the new demands by launching sugar-free products. Until a few years back, only diabetic patients were seeking such products, but nowadays many health-conscious people who don't want to be trapped by lifestyle diseases are looking out for sugar-free products.

Whenever I accompany my in-laws for grocery shopping, I get very concerned with the way they scout for sugar-free foods in every aisle. Be it ice-creams, jams, biscuits, cookies etc. All they would check for is the label "SUGAR FREE" on the front side of the pack. Both of them have diabetes and hypertension. They have been on artificial sweeteners for decades.

The intention of this article is NOT to talk about artificial sweeteners and their ill effects per se but more about the label "sugar free" and how it can mislead consumers into buying unhealthy products.

Take for example, this pack of Unibic's Daily Digestive sugar free ajwain cookies. 
 
 
 
The first two ingredients are maida and palm oil, both are unhealthy, more so for people who are diabetic. Why? Because of the high glycemic index of maida and the inflammatory properties of refined oil.

Instead of sugar, this pack contains maltitol (E965).  Maltitol is a sugar alcohol (a polyol) used as a sugar substitute. It has 2.1 calories per gram (white sugar has 4 calories per gram) and a glycemic index of 52 (table sugar has a glycemic index of 60). Since maltitol is a carbohydrate and contains calories, it affects blood glucose levels. Some of the side effects of maltitol include abdominal cramps and intestinal gas. It is also mentioned in the pack - "polyols may have laxative effect".


To increase the fibre level, the brand has included fructooligosaccharide. I didn't understand the need for it, given that the pack already contains 7.2% rolled oats and 4.5% wheat bran. Then as I flipped to the front side, I noticed this tagline "33% daily fibre". 100 gm of these cookies contain 8.2 gm of dietary fibre, which is definitely on the higher side. Instead of blindly going with the "high fibre" and "sugar-free" taglines, it is imperative that we also look at the source of fibre.

Dietary Fructooligosaccharides are a form of sugar that is naturally present in onion, garlic, artichokes, banana etc. They act as a prebiotic, as they go undigested into the intestine and feed the gut bacteria. Sounds all good but whether the lab processed fructooligosaccharides provide the same result is something to be questioned. 

Most sugar-free products will have either high levels of fat or salt to compensate for the lack of sugar. 100 gm of these sugar-free ajwain cookies contain 22gm of unhealthy fats. The other unhealthy additives in the form of leavening agents, emulsifiers and artificial flavors are also present.

This is yet another junk masquerading as healthy. Let alone diabetics, it is not a healthy choice for fit people either.

I'm listing down a few other popular brands which use "sugar-free" as their value proposition along with their respective artificial sweeteners.

Horlicks Lite => Acesulfame Potassium (950)
Women's Horlicks => Acesulfame Potassium (950)
Bournvita for women => Sucralose (955)
Brittania Nutrichoice Digestive Zero => Maltitol (965) and Sucralose (955)
Unibic Sugar free Butter cookies =>  Maltitol (965) and Sucralose (955)
McVities Digestive No added sugar => Maltitol (965)

Let's not blindly pick such "sugar-free" labeled junk. Let's read the ingredients and understand the nutrition facts.

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