Is Sugar-Free Candy the Best Choice If You Have Diabetes?

Sugar-free or not, you need to monitor your intake

If you have diabetes you may feel like sugar is your enemy. But when you have a hankering for something sweet, is sugar-free candy a healthy option?

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In this Q and A, registered dietitian Anna Taylor, MS, RD, LD, CDE, answers our questions and discusses what you need to know about sugary treats and other foods that use sugar substitutes.

Q: Should people with diabetes eat candy with or without sugar?

A: About 90 percent of your diet should focus on healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, poultry and fish. There is wiggle room in a healthful diet for treats like sweets whether you have diabetes or not. That is where candy would fit.

You should enjoy your food — and food also has social, emotional and physical health benefits. Built into the recommended dietary guidelines is room for getting up to 10 percent of your calories from sugar every day.

Treats affect your blood sugar. So if you have diabetes, it’s important to focus on portion control and moderation when you select these foods.

In other words, you can eat treats even if you have diabetes. But you need to account for the carbohydrate and calorie content they provide in your diet whether they are sugar-free or not.

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Q: How much sugar should you allow in your daily diet?

A: Everyone with diabetes is different, but here’s what the American Heart Association recommends:

  • No more than 25 grams of added sugar (about six teaspoons or 100 calories) daily for women
  • No more than 36 grams (about nine teaspoons or 150 calories) of added sugar per day for men

Q: How does sugar-free candy affect your body?

A: Some sugar substitutes contain carbohydrates, while others do not. All carbohydrates turn into sugar in the body, leading to elevated blood sugar levels. You have to read the nutrition facts label to know whether a product contains carbohydrates.

It’s true that sugar alcohols  such as sorbitol, xylitol, and mannitol, don’t affect blood sugars as dramatically as other carbohydrates do. So sugar-free candy with most of the total carbs coming from these alcohols will typically have less impact on your blood sugar.

Many of those who have type 2 diabetes do well with an intake of 30 grams to 45 grams of carbs per meal (for women) and 45 to 60 grams per meal (for men), and snacks with no more than 20 grams of carbs. See a registered dietitian for individualized recommendations.

Q: What are some misunderstandings that surround sugar-free candy?

A: There are several, including:

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  • Sugar-free means unlimited. Sugar-free candies and other treats may still contain carbohydrates. In addition, some sugar-free candy contains significant calories and is high in saturated or trans fats. Pay attention to serving sizes, strictly avoid trans fats and limit saturated fat to 6 percent (fewer than 13 grams) of total calories per day. For a 2,000 calorie per day diet, this would be about 13 grams.
  • Sugar-free means healthy. Fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains are examples of healthy foods. Candy doesn’t count as healthy, even if it is sugar-free. If you eat a lot of candy and aren’t ready to cut back, however, switching to sugar-free candy may help you better control your carbohydrate intake. The long-term goal, though, is to cut down on all candy.
  • It is only for people with diabetes. Those who have diabetes can eat sugar as part of their overall carbohydrate budget. Both kinds of candy can increase blood sugars, especially if portion and carbohydrate content are not considered. In addition, people with or without diabetes may choose sugar-free candy if they are trying to lower calories or decrease sugar intake.

Q: Are there benefits to choosing sugar-free candy?

A: There are several possible benefits, including:

  • When eaten in moderation, sugar alcohols don’t dramatically increase blood sugars.
  • It may contain fewer total carbohydrates than regular candy.
  • It obviously has less added sugar than regular candy.
  • It may have fewer calories than regular candy.

Q: Are there any problems with sugar-free candy?

A: Sugar alcohols can cause adverse gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain, gas and diarrhea. So it’s a good idea to stick to the serving size recommendations.

Some studies suggest that certain zero-calorie sweeteners may also stimulate appetite, which can be counterproductive for someone who is trying to watch their weight.

The bottom line: Most people can enjoy treats — with or without sugar — as part of a healthy diet. If you have questions about sugar or carbohydrate intake, consult your doctor or a dietitian.

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