What is the difference, if anything between low-carb and sugar-free?
For example, my father is a diabetic and I've noticed that he eats sugar-free treats like sugar-free Oreos. I looked on the box and they contain 17 g of carbs per serving, however, they have 0 g sugar. When dealing with sugar-free items; are the carbs calculated differently? So say I am allowed 100 g carbs a day and I eat a serving of sugar-free Oreos do I count those as 17 g or a different calculation? Thanks for your help in advance.
Before we get to answering the specific questions, let's take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Food provides calories in the form of macronutrients. The big three are protein, fat and carbohydrate however alcohol is also in this category. Macronutrients provide energy, promote growth and development and regulate body functions. Since your questions relate specifically to carbohydrates and sugar, let me quickly state that protein and fat are essential macronutrients, we cannot survive without them, carbohydrates on the other hand are another story.
What is the difference between low-carb & sugar-free?
Ok, so here's the deal, all sugars are carbohydrates but not all carbohydrates are sugar. Clear as mud, right? I know, not really. When looking at a nutritional label, carbohydrate content is the sum of its components which include fiber, sugars, starch and sometimes sugar alcohols. Foods that are low-carb, by default, will be low in sugar and quite possibly sugar-free. However, foods that are sugar-free are not necessarily low-carb as sugar is only one of the carbohydrate components. When looking at processed foods with labels, it's important to note the FDA has defined sugar-free as a having less than 0.5 g of sugar per serving but has not defined what low-carb means.
When dealing with sugar-free are the carbs calculated differently?
The answer to this question is up for interpretation. You see, when food manufactures remove the sugar from their goods they replace it with either artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols or a combination of both. Oftentimes, on the label of foods specifically marketed towards “low-carbers”, you will see “net carbs”. Net carbs are calculated by subtracting fiber and sugar alcohols from the total carb count. The theory behind the idea of “net carbs” is that while both fiber and sugar alcohols are carbohydrates, they do not have an impact on blood sugar. While this may be true for fiber, it's not always true when it comes to sugar alcohols. The most commonly used sugar alcohol in packaged goods for diabetics and low-carbers is maltitol. Get this, if maltitol had no impact on blood sugar, it would have a glycemic index of zero. Guess what, it doesn't, instead it scores a 52 (for reference sake, sugar scores a 60). There are only two sugar alcohols which have no impact on blood sugar and thus score a zero on the glycemic index, erythritol and mannitol.
So say I am allowed 100 g of carbs a day and I eat a serving of sugar-free Oreos, do I count those as 17 g or a different calculation?
There's a Chinese Proverbs that goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. You know what that means, don't you? I'm not going to give you the answer. No, instead, I am going to turn the question back on you. If you are allowed 100 g of carbohydrates a day, how would you count one serving of sugar-free Oreo Cookies?
1. There is 0 g of sugar per serving which makes this sugar-free.
2. There is 17 g of total carbohydrates.
3. There is 3 g of fiber.
4. There is 8 g of of sugar alcohols.
5. Maltitol is first in the ingredient list. On a product label, the ingredients are listed in order of predominance, with the ingredients used in the greatest amount first.
A serving of sugar-free Oreos is two cookies, 90 cals./5 g fat/17 g carbs/1 g protein