Although sweets can affect your blood sugar, and consuming a diet high in added sugar can increase your risk for developing diabetes, there are many more factors that influence diabetes development including genetics and lifestyle.

When you have elevated blood sugar levels or have prediabetes or 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 and sweets.

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 elevated blood sugar levels or diabetes to help you manage your blood sugar.

On nutrition labels, the term “carbohydrates” includes sugars, complex carbohydrates, and fiber. In desserts and many other products like salad dressings, breakfast cereals, and yogurts, a number of ingredients can be added to enhance sweetness.

While some foods, such as fruits and vegetables, naturally contain sugars, many processed foods and desserts have some type of sugar added to them. Many food labels will not list “sugar” as a key ingredient. Instead, they will list the ingredient as one or more of the following:

  • dextrose
  • fructose
  • high-fructose corn syrup
  • lactose
  • malt syrup
  • sucrose
  • white granulated sugar
  • honey
  • agave nectar
  • glucose
  • maltodextrin

These sugar sources are carbohydrates and will raise your blood sugar. They can be found in many food products including cookies, sweetened cereals, marinara sauce, flavored oatmeals, cakes, chips, pies, puddings, yogurt, sports drinks, premade smoothies, candy, ice cream, and other desserts and sweets.

Because these simple sugars are digested much more quickly than complex carbohydrates like whole grains and starchy vegetables, they have the potential to impact your blood sugar very quickly compared to other foods that contain more complex, less processed carbohydrates.

Products that are high in added sugars tend to contain a lot of carbohydrates for a small serving, which can affect your ability to manage 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, natural, or modified sugar substitutes do not impact a person’s blood sugar as significantly — or at all.

These ingredients can help you stay within your recommended carbohydrate intake for the day without negatively impacting your blood sugar, if eaten in moderation. Examples include:

  • sugar alcohols, such as xylitol and erythritol
  • natural sweeteners, such as stevia (Truvia or Pure Via) and monk fruit sweetener

Note that the sugar substitutes aspartame (Equal) and saccharin (Sweet’N Low) can have detrimental effects on your health and should be avoided whenever possible. A 2020 study also found that people with diabetes who frequently use these particular ingredients had higher insulin resistance.

Knowing the difference between sugar-containing foods and those with less sugar content can help with diabetes management.

Many different types of sugar replacements can appear in store-bought desserts and sweets. It can be difficult to determine what will impact your blood sugar versus what won’t.

Impact of sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners

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

Artificial sweeteners are synthetic substitutes for sugar. Examples include:

  • acesulfame potassium
  • aspartame
  • neotame
  • saccharin
  • sucralose

These sweeteners can have an aftertaste and some can have detrimental effects on health.

For example, some research suggests that certain artificial sweeteners may disrupt the oxidant/antioxidant balance in your body, may cause blood sugar dysregulation, and may also disrupt the gut microbiome.

It’s best to avoid artificial sweeteners if possible.

Sugar alcohols

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 on average 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
  • erythritol
  • xylitol

These are commonly added to prepackaged foods that are labeled “sugar-free” or “no sugar added.”

Some kinds have been known to cause increased incidences of gas and loose stools.

Natural sweeteners

Natural sweeteners are often used to replace sugar in recipes. They include:

  • nectars
  • fruit juices
  • monk fruit
  • honey
  • molasses
  • agave syrup
  • maple syrup

Natural sweeteners impact blood sugar just like other sugar sweeteners.

One exception to this rule is stevia, which the 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 and Pure Via.

There is less clinical research on newer sweeteners such as these, so long-term effects are still being determined.

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 most important areas are serving size, total carbohydrates, added sugars, total sugars, and total calories.

Serving size

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 halve 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.

Total carbohydrates

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 5 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.

Added sugars

Added sugars includes sugar added during food processing or during cooking. These do not naturally occur in the food itself.

Here’s are some ingredients to look for to recognize these sugars on a food label:

  • other names for sugar like fructose, lactose, maltose, and dextrose
  • syrups such as high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, brown rice syrup, malt syrup, maple syrup, agave, carob syrup, honey, and molasses
  • pear nectar, peach nectar, and other fruit nectars
  • palm sugar, beet sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar
  • evaporated sweetener
  • fruit juice and cane juice and other juices
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Some foods we think to include in a healthy eating plan such as cereal, oatmeal, breads, dressings, sauces, and yogurt, have a lot of added sugar.

Always look at the nutrition label to see how much added sugar you’ll be consuming. FYI 4 grams of sugar equates to 1 teaspoon.

Total sugars

On a nutrition label, total sugars include both added sugar and naturally occurring sugar in the item. Foods like fruits and dairy products naturally contain sugar, but may also have sugar added before being sold.

For instance, an 6-ounce serving of plain Greek yogurt may have 5 to 10 grams of natural dairy sugar and no added sugar. But a flavored version could have upwards of 10 grams of added sugar, bringing the total sugar to over 20 grams or much higher.

Looking at total sugar will give you insight into how your blood sugar may be affected by eating it.

Total calories

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 manage.

The American Heart Association recommends between 24 and 36 grams as the maximum amount of added sugar a person without diabetes should consume per day.

This added sugar can add up fast. Just one can of Coca-Cola, for instance, has 39 grams of sugar.

People with prediabetes or diabetes should generally try to keep their overall added sugar consumption low, usually under 10 percent of overall calories.

Tips to lower your sugar intake with diabetes

  • Eat carbs with a lower glycemic index, such as whole wheat, whole oats, and whole fruits.
  • Eat fiber-rich foods to promote good blood sugar management.
  • Eat carbs alongside lean proteins and healthy fats.
  • Include lots of nonstarchy vegetables, such as leafy greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and mushrooms.
  • Avoid sugary snacks, alcoholic drinks, processed foods, and “diet” or “low fat” foods as much as possible.
  • Drink water instead of sugary beverages, soft drinks, and juices.
  • Avoid fruits canned in syrup. Whole fruits eaten in moderation are best.
  • Limit or avoid artificial sweeteners as much as possible.
  • Consider food swaps to limit sugar such as using salsa instead of ketchup, an oil and vinegar mixture on salads, sparkling water instead of soda, and cinnamon to sweeten coffee.
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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 diabetes-friendly desserts include:

You may encounter “sugar-free” or “no sugar added” foods, including cookies, cakes, and pies.

Keep in mind that just because these foods do not have sugar does not mean they are carbohydrate or calorie-free. Limit these to only special occasions and opt for whole foods and fresh fruit as your usual dessert option.