“Sugar free” seems like an easy enough thing to figure out. Sugar free foods are foods with no sugar in them, zero sugar, sugarless, if you will. But is that actually the case? In many instances, the answer is no.

For starters, let’s look at how the USDA defines “sugar free”. Technically, food manufacturers can say that their product has zero sugar if it contains 0.5 grams of sugar per serving or less [1]. The same is true of labels that boast claims of “cholesterol free”, “calorie free”, and “fat free”. Certainly this is a negligible amount if you eat one serving, but what if you eat more than one serving? This tactic is commonly used when labeling junk food, foods which people are far more likely to consume more than one serving. Sure, two grams of sugar still isn’t much if you eat four or more servings, but it’s not what I would call “sugar free”, either.

The other problem with processed foods that boast the sugar free label is that they are usually riddled with artificial sweeteners that are even worse for you than sugar. Aspartame consumption, for example, has been linked to numerous types of tumors. Add to that the fact that the ingestion of artificial sweeteners has been shown to increase sugar cravings, the exact opposite of what the average diet Coke drinker wants to do, and it just doesn’t make sense to consume this stuff. On the other hand, low glycemic index (read: low glucose, high fructose) sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup and agave nectar are technically low in the sugar that raises your blood sugar (glucose), but are preferentially stored as fat making them even worse for diabetics and people trying to lose weight than regular sugar. For more on these topics, please see my previous posts here.

 I don’t think the Pillsbury dough boy will ever advertise something that is truly healthy…

However, my most recent pet-peeve has been the use of the term “sugar free” in various health food recipes such as this one. This recipe calls for bananas and honey, both of which have a pretty hefty amount of sugar in them [2].I see this type of thing all too often in paleo and vegan recipes- the use of maple syrup, honey, coconut crystals, dates, raisins, bananas, etc and yet they still call the recipe sugar free. I think what the author meant to say is that this fudge is refined sugar-free. Now, don’t get me wrong, I make these types of recipes more frequently than I’d like to admit… I just think it’s incorrect to call them sugar free. Actually, I made that fudge recipe this weekend and highly recommend it! Just don’t go crazy and eat a lot of it because you think it’s sugar free ; )

So where do we go from here? I think the best way to tackle this once and for all is to take a moment to define sugar. Hopefully if we know what sugar is we will know how to best avoid it.

1. Table sugar, the white crystalline form of the disaccharide sucralose*.
2. The simplest form of carbohydrate, consisting of one, two or three carbon-based rings. Examples include glucose, fructose, and galactose (monosaccharides), as well as combinations of the three such as lactose (one glucose and one galactose) and sucrose* (one glucose and one fructose).

I hope this post has made you think of something you hadn’t ever thought about before. Don’t take anything at face value- even something as seeminly simple as the term “sugar free”.

Nikki Cyr, D.C.

[1] http://www.fsis.usda.gov/pdf/labeling_requirements_guide.pdf
[2] http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1846/2

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