‘Sugar-free' does not mean ‘fat-free,' stress diabetologists

At a departmental store on Chamiers Road, Shanthi Sekhar who has been a diabetic for 20 years, looks for a sugar-free box of cereal to add to her collection of unsweetened soya milk, sugar-free jam and sugar-free chocolates. “I have been purchasing sugar-free products on my own initiative as a way of staying healthy,” she adds.

As sugar is a no-no for persons living with diabetes, and with the increased availability of sugar-free products in the market, a number of people, including those intending to control weight, have begun to choose these products as substitutes.

The word, ‘free' may imply that more of the food can be consumed without raising the blood sugar levels but ‘sugar-free' does not mean ‘fat-free,' stress diabetologists. “Some sugar-free sweets contain a substitute called sucralose which is definitely better for diabetic persons than sweets that contain sugar. But the sugar-free sweets still contain ghee, oil, and fat that will increase the calorie intake,” says V.Mohan, chief diabetologist, Dr.Mohan's Diabetes Specialities Centre.

There are five sweeteners that are approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration, of which sucralose is the safest, says Meenakshi Bajaj, medical nutritional therapist at Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital. “People have to make extra effort to read the labels of products and choose a safe sweetener,” she adds. “Just like people do not pick up tablets off the shelves and consume them, similarly a doctor should be consulted before picking up sweeteners off the shelves,” says Ms.Bajaj.

At the V.P.Diabetes Research Centre in Tambaram, Dr.V.Parthasarathy advises his patients to go ‘cold-turkey' on their consumption of sugar and not take any sugar-substitutes. “Sugar-free products are filled with chemicals. So, why add these to the body?” he says. Describing these products as “humbug,” he says an unhealthy lifestyle among youngsters is already causing several problems.

Lack of regulation

At Dr.Mohan's Diabetes Specialities Centre, a department dedicated to food and nutrition has been testing the veracity of several sugar-free products available in the market.

“We have been systematically testing over 200 varieties of rice prepared for diabetic persons. In some products, test has shown sugar levels have skyrocketed despite the product claiming otherwise,” says Dr.Mohan. So far, the tests have shown only rice varieties with a moderate glycemic index and none with a low index, he adds.

“The key is to constantly educate people, making them more aware,” says Dr.Mohan. “As regulation is minimal, anyone can claim anything to sell a product but the labels have to be carefully scrutinised,” he adds.