A popular misconception about diabetes is that it is caused by eating too many sugary foods. While sweets can and do affect your blood sugar, they do not cause you to develop diabetes. However, when you have diabetes, you must carefully monitor your carbohydrate intake. This is because carbohydrates are responsible for raising your blood sugar levels.
While you can enjoy sugary foods when you have diabetes, it is important to do so in moderation and with some understanding of how it could impact your blood sugar. This includes sugars found in desserts.
Types of sugar in food
When you have diabetes, your body is either not able to use insulin correctly or not able to make any or enough insulin. Some people with diabetes experience both of these issues. Problems with insulin can cause sugar to build up in your blood since insulin is responsible for helping sugar move from the blood and into the body’s cells. Foods that contain carbohydrates raise blood sugar. Carbohydrates need to be regulated when you have diabetes to help you manage your blood sugar.
On nutrition labels, the term “carbohydrates” includes sugars, complex carbohydrates, and fiber. In desserts, a number of sweet-tasting ingredients can be added to enhance sweetness. While some foods, such as fruits, naturally contain sugars, most desserts have some type of sugar added to them. Many dessert labels will not list “sugar” as a key ingredient. Instead, they will list the ingredient as one or more of the following:
- high-fructose corn syrup
- malt syrup
- white granulated sugar
- agave nectar
These sugar sources are carbohydrates and will raise your blood sugar. They can be found in cookies, cakes, pies, puddings, candy, ice cream, and other desserts. Because these simple sugars are digested much more quickly than regular carbohydrates, they have the potential to impact your blood sugar very quickly compared to other foods that contain more complex, less processed carbohydrates. They also often contain a lot of carbohydrates for a small serving. Both of these things can affect your ability to maintain control over your blood sugar levels.
To address the needs of the ever-growing population of people with diabetes, food manufacturers have introduced alternate sources of sugar. These artificial or modified sweeteners do not impact a person’s blood sugar as significantly — or at all. These foods can help you stay within your recommended carbohydrate intake for the day without negatively impacting your blood sugar, if eaten in moderation. Examples include:
- artificial sweeteners, such as Equal or Sweet’N Low
- sugar alcohols, such as maltitol
- natural sweeteners, such as Truvia or Pure Via
Knowing the difference between sugar-containing foods and those with less sugar content can help diabetes management.
Impact of sugar
alcohols and artificial sweeteners
Many different types of sugar replacements can appear in desserts. It can be difficult to determine what will impact your blood sugar versus what won’t. You must read food labels carefully to determine what could impact your blood sugar. Below are three examples of modified sugars you may find or add to desserts:
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic substitutes for sugar that have been altered so they will not impact blood sugar. Examples include acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, and sucralose. These sweeteners can have an aftertaste. Most can be purchased in a grocery store for use in home recipes. However, they can be sweeter than typical sugars, so you may need to adjust how much to add. Some cannot be heated, so be sure to follow the instructions on the label. These sweeteners do not add calories or carbohydrates.
Sugar alcohols can occur in nature or be synthetically manufactured. Unlike artificial sweeteners, they are no sweeter than sugar and do contain calories. However, they only contain 2 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram for regular carbohydrates. This means that sugar alcohols will raise your blood sugar levels but not as much as regular carbohydrates will. Examples include glycerol, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol. They are commonly added to prepackaged foods that are labeled “sugar-free” or “no sugar added.” They have been known to cause increased incidences of gas and loose stools. This is especially true when a food contains anywhere from 10 to 50 grams of sugar alcohols, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Natural sweeteners are often used to replace sugar in recipes. They include nectars, fruit juices, honey, molasses, and maple syrup. Natural sweeteners impact blood sugar just like other sugar sweeteners.
One exception to this rule is Stevia, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recognizes as a “food additive.” Stevia is an extract that comes from the plant Stevia rebaudiana. Stevia can be added to desserts made at home. Some products, such as soft drinks, have started to add stevia. Stevia is significantly sweeter than sugar, and does not increase blood sugar levels. Brand-name products that manufacture stevia include Truvia, Pure Via, and Stevia.
Tips for reading
You can get an idea of how much a dessert may impact your blood sugar by reading the nutrition facts label on the back of its packaging. The three most important areas are serving size, total carbohydrates, and total calories.
All nutrition information on the label is calculated according to the listed serving size. It is very important to note the serving size of the food. You want to calculate your carbohydrate and calorie intake based on how much you plan to eat. For example, if the serving size is two cookies, and you only eat one cookie, you will half the number of carbohydrates and calories listed on the label. But if you are eating four cookies, you will want to double the carbohydrate and calorie amounts.
The total carbohydrates portion lists how many carbohydrates are present in a serving of that particular food. There are some exceptions to this number if you are counting grams of carbohydrates to manage your blood sugar. You will need to subtract half of the total fiber from the carbohydrate count if there are more than five grams of fiber per serving. You may also need to calculate the impact of sugar alcohols. Unless otherwise instructed by your doctor, you can determine the impact of sugar alcohols by subtracting half the grams of sugar alcohols from total carbohydrates. For example, if you have a 30-gram carbohydrate candy bar that contains 20 grams of sugar alcohols, subtract 10 from 30 to equal 20 grams of carbohydrates.
Calorie intake is important as well. Many low-sugar or artificially sweetened foods are still high in calories and often low in nutritional value. Eating them excessively can contribute to weight gain, which makes your blood sugar levels harder to control.
Considerations for eating desserts
People with diabetes can still enjoy something sweet from time to time. However, it’s important to know what impact certain foods can have on your blood sugar. The key is to manage portions. There are many recipes on the web today that are tasty and low in carbohydrates and do not use any artificial sweeteners. Examples of some diabetic-friendly desserts that may or may not have artificial sweeteners include:
- granola (with no sugar added) and fresh fruit
- graham crackers with nut butter
- angel food cake
- sugar-free hot chocolate sprinkled with cinnamon
- sugar-free fudge popsicle
- sugar-free gelatin made with fresh fruit with sugar-free whipped topping
- sugar-free pudding with sugar-free whipped topping
Many companies also make sugar-free or no-sugar added foods, including cookies, cakes, and pies. Keep in mind, however, that just because these foods do not have sugar does not mean they are carbohydrate or calorie-free. They must still be enjoyed in moderation. To help moderate sugar intake, many people use the “three-bite” rule where you enjoy three bites of a dessert. Having a beginning, middle, and end can satisfy your sweet tooth without skyrocketing your blood sugar levels.