Americans buy more than 180 million pounds of Easter candy each year, enough to fill 4,615 dump trucks. That includes 16 billion jelly beans specially prepared for Easter and 4 million marshmallow peeps like chicks and bunnies.
If you want to avoid all that sugar, artificially sweetened chocolate and candy might seem like a viable alternative for Easter feasting. But health experts say: Maybe not — particularly diabetics suffering from one of the fastest-growing diseases in the country.
To sweeten sugar-free chocolate, most companies use maltitol, a sugar alcohol that is 90 percent as sweet as sugar. Maltitol — like other similar sugar replacements sorbitol, xylitol, manitol and isomalt — may be particularly helpful to people with diabetes because only a portion of it is digested and absorbed. And the part that is absorbed through the intestines is absorbed slowly, so there is relatively little rise in blood sugar.
In a recent taste test, the most recommended brands based on palatability included Dove Sugar Free Rich Dark Chocolates with Chocolate Crème, Yamate Chocolatier Sugar-Free Milk chocolate, and Godiva Sugar-Free Chocolate Bar with Almonds. These brands all use maltitol as the sugar replacer.
Russell Stover Net Carb Pecan Delights, Nestle Turtles Sugar-Free, and Hershey’s Sugar-Free Chocolate Candy didn’t fare quite so well with the tasters, who reported a “chalky texture and strange after taste” with these products.
But health experts say you’re better off avoiding artificially sweetened products altogether.
Dr. Joel Fuhrman, a leading authority on nutrition and the author of “The End of Diabetes,” warns that for diabetics, eating sugar-free candy may not be a healthier choice.
“When a diabetic eats ‘sugar-free’ sweets, it still stimulates the neuro-hormonal response driving food addiction and the desire to consume more sweets,” he tells Newsmax Health.
“Studies show that eating low-calorie or even no-calorie sweeteners still [drives] caloric consumption. That means when you consume low-calorie or no-calorie sweetening agents, it makes your crave sweets, and want to eat more calories.
“In my book, ‘The End of Diabetes,’ I show how diabetics can make fantastic desserts using fruits and limited amounts of dried fruit. This is the safest and most health promoting way to enjoy sweets for everyone.”
A recent research study presented at the 100th annual meeting of the Endocrine Society in Chicago brought forward startling new evidence that “consumption of low-calorie sweeteners could promote metabolic syndrome and predispose individuals to prediabetes and diabetes.”
The authors, from George Washington University, say that their studies indicate that low-calorie sweeteners — they used sucralose in their research — actually promote fat accumulation within cells increasing the risk of heart attacks and stroke for individuals who are obese or who have prediabetes or diabetes.
Leading nutritionist Amy Shapiro, of Real Nutrition in New York City, tells Newsmax Health that eating dark chocolate that is naturally low in sugar is a better bet than consuming artificially sweetened candy.
“Choose bars that contain at least 70 percent cacao,” she advises. “They may contain some sugar but it’s pretty low per serving and that should balance out with the fat and fiber that naturally occurs in chocolate so it won’t spike your blood sugar. Some of my favorites include: Antidote, Alter Eco, Lindt, and Sweet Lily’s.”
Shapiro warns that very often sugar substitutes can cause gastrointestinal distress including gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
“No one wants that!” she says. “Some sugar subs confuse our brain and cause insulin, our fat storage hormone, to react as if we were eating sugar even though we are not and will cause us to store fat regardless. This in turn can actually cause weight gain. I always recommend eating a little of the real thing. In the end, portion control is what will keep you healthy even while indulging.”
Dr. Ellen Kamhi Ph.D., author “The Natural Medicine Chest,” says that diabetics can often handle small amounts of natural sugar such as honey, maple syrup, and dates.
“Some of these artificial sweeteners are terrible for our health,” she says, adding that products such as saccharin have a possible link to cancer, and aspartame has been shown to cause headaches, dizziness seizures, nausea, and other negative effects.
Tara Gidus Collingwood, an Orlando-based nutritionist and team dietitian for the Orlando Magic basketball team adds: “There really are no artificial sweeteners that are better than others. They are all approved by the [Food and Drug Administration] and all don’t have sugar.”
She tells Newsmax Health: “In terms of sugar-free chocolate and candy, I advise diabetics to still watch total calories and carbohydrate content of even the sugar-free candy and count it towards their total carbs for the day. It comes down to portion control and how we substitute these products into our diet by replacing the sugar-free candy with other carbs. Remember sugar-free does not mean calorie- or carbohydrate-free. It still counts.”
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