Jason Knapfel

When you decided to take on a low-carb lifestyle,or decided to give up sugar for lent was capping your sweet tooth a problem? Now that you're counting carbs and paying attention to your blood sugar, do you still miss the occasional sweet treat?

Well, that needn’t be the case!

Advances in food science have made it easier than ever to avoid sugar and still enjoy some of your old snacks. That's because, for most high-carbohydrate foods, you can find a low-carb substitute.

And thanks to constant technological improvements, the selection of low-carb products will continue to grow and get better.

There has been tremendous progress with a group of compounds known as polyols, or sugar alcohols. Some of you have probably seen this term on low-carb product labels. Sugar alcohols are used to sweeten all kinds of low-carb sweets and treats, baked goods, sauces and syrups. They have nothing to do with the alcohol you may be thinking of. Sugar alcohols don't contain the intoxicating ethanol.

While sugar alcohols occur naturally in some foods, they can also be manufactured from just about any plant that contains carbohydrates. The process begins in much the same way other sugars are manufactured. The process alters the fructose in a way that retains its sweetness but vastly reduces its impact on blood sugar. It also has no more than half the calories of the carbohydrates they are replacing. A gram of carbohydrate typically has four calories, whereas a gram of sugar alcohol has two or less.

Low carb products that are available to buy primarily use three types of sugar alcohols: maltitol, sorbitol and isomalt (isomalt is a mixture of sorbitol and mannitol).

All foods containing sugar alcohols, however, should be consumed in moderation because of their potential for gastrointestinal side effects, including wind, cramping and diarrhoea. Sensitivity to these effects varies tremendously from person to person. You may be super sensitive to even a small amount, while someone else may seem immune.

Also, over time, people seem to develop an increasing tolerance to sugar alcohols. A general rule of thumb, however, is to stick to no more than two to three servings, or no more than 25 grams of sugar alcohols, per day.

While this new class of food products has definitely made it easier to enjoy your favourite high-carb foods, to follow the Low-Carb Plan properly, these items should not replace healthful, whole foods.

You may be wondering why the Low-Carb Plan doesn’t just use an artificial sweetener like Splenda. However, if you've ever made sweets, you know that sugar actually plays a more important role than just flavouring. It often helps make up the substance of a food.

For example, a chocolate bar is basically composed of sugar, fat and flavouring. If you just add a pinch of artificial sweetener to oil and cocoa powder, you'd end up with a mess. It's the sugar that gives a chocolate bar its structure.

When sugar alcohols are used in other foods, such as sauces and syrups, they provide what's referred to in the food science world as "mouth feel." In other words, if a syrup is made without sugar or sugar alcohols, it will be slimy and lacking in body. Sugar alcohols give such foods a more pleasing texture.

One final clarification about sugar alcohols: On product labels, you may have seen that glycerine is subtracted from the total carb count along with sugar alcohols to yield the grams of Carbs (the only carbs you need to count on the Low-Carb Plan). Glycerine has the same properties as sugar alcohols and is metabolised in the body in the same way, but it is not as sweet. Glycerine is also known as glycerol.

Finally, not everyone responds the same way to sugar alcohols. People with type 2 diabetes should check their blood sugar 90 minutes after eating a food containing sugar alcohols. If an abnormal elevation results it's best to avoid them until your metabolism improves.

So remember, these tasty sweets made with sugar alcohols should be eaten sparingly and enjoyed as occasional treats... the way they are supposed to be. And stick with whole foods with your meals.