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Sugar-free but with a pinch of salt

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Not so sweet: Think twice before you reach for that sugar-free delicacy
Not so sweet: Think twice before you reach for that sugar-free delicacy

Bageshree S.

Just because something is labelled sugar-free that does not mean it is safe for diabetics

Bangalore: May I tempt you with a black forest pastry to sate that yearning sweet tooth? And what if the experience could be made guilt-free by making it a low-calorie, sugar-free sliver of delicacy?

If that sounds like one paradox piled upon another, it is time you get introduced to the marketing spiel of those in the business of selling food products, made especially for those who are calorie-conscious or suffer from (or are prone to) diabetes.

Sugar-free brigade

The market for products related to diagnosis and medication for diabetics is huge, involving billions of dollars — the market being largely an international one. But the “sugar-free” brigade that dishes out low-calorie foods for the growing number of diabetics and a burgeoning population of obese urban dwellers cannot be ignored. India is, after all, the diabetes capital of the world with 37 million people with diabetes.

Starting from the neighbourhood grocery store that sells bittergourd chutney pudi for its “health benefits” to diabetics to the retail chains and MNCs which sell “diet” Coke or Pepsi in its “less than a calorie” avatar, the market is all-pervasive and on the rise. Walk into any upmarket provision store, and you are bombarded with no less than five varieties of artificial sweeteners alone, besides “sugar-free” jams, squashes and sweets. Ice-cream brands have come up with special desserts for diabetics, and low-calorie ice-creams. Amul, for example, has introduced what it calls “Sugar-free Probiotic Diabetic Delight Frozen Dessert”.

Artificial sweeteners

Several popular sweet shops in Bangalore now have a separate section of sweets made using artificial sweeteners. And it does not stop at that — some shops have left natural sugar completely behind, and only sell this “artificial” variety. Diabetics Dezire, a franchisee outlet in V.V. Puram, makes sweets with fructose/levulose. Geeta Bai, who holds the franchise for a Chennai-based firm, claims it has “many regulars.” Interestingly, even the prasada at places like ISKCON comes in “low-calorie” options for health and salvation? But can one really gorge on these “sugar-free” sweets without inhibition or should these claims be taken with, well, a pinch of salt?

Word of caution

For one, there have been claims and counter-claims on artificial sweeteners. The research on the long-term implications of over consumption of these synthetic substances is divided. Vishnu Prasad of the well-known Ventakateshwara Sweets in Gandhi Bazar, which offers special burfi and doodh pedha for diabetics, offers a word of caution himself. “We use fructose in place of normal sugar. But the other ingredients like khova remain the same. So I would not really want to misguide a diabetic into believing that one can eat any quantity of these sweets,” he candidly says.

“It is not as if we have any lab test on the sweets.”

Tripurasundari A., a diabetic who keeps abreast of the latest research in the field, says: “When diabetics eat something without sugar, they assume it is safe. This is not so because everything we eat eventually turns to sugar. Carbohydrates metabolise the fastest. When we drink a cup of coffee without sugar, we are still consuming about 12 grams of carbohydrate which comes from the lactose in the milk.”

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