Nicole Senior pulls the plug on hype and marketing spin to provide reliable, practical advice on food for health and enjoyment.
Easter is the season that will test the New Year’s resolutions of many. You will be quietly going about your grocery shopping and the chocolate bunnies will literally hop right into your shopping trolley! If you’d like to stay on the path of health over Easter, are sugar-free chocolates a better option? Let’s look at what’s in them.
First up, what are the typical ingredients in regular chocolate?
- Lindt Excellence Smooth Blend 70% Cocoa Dark Chocolate: Cocoa mass, SUGAR, cocoa butter, emulsifier (soy lecithin), vanilla.
- Lindt Lindor Milk Block: SUGAR, vegetable fats, cocoa butter, whole milk powder, cocoa mass, lactose, skim milk powder, milk fat, emulsifier (soy lecithin), barley malt extract, flavourings.
- Well Naturally Rich Dark Chocolate: Cocoa mass; cocoa butter (70% cocoa solids), polydextrose, erythritol, soy lecithin, natural flavour, stevia.
- Healtheries No Added Sugar Milk Chocolate: Chocolate 57% [Cocoa Solids 40% (Cocoa Butter, Cocoa Mass), Maltitol, Full Cream Milk Powder, Emulsifier (Soy Lecithin), Natural Flavour, Natural Sweetener (Steviol Glycosides)] Filling 43% [Maltitol, Vegetable Fat, Cocoa Powder, Emulsifier (Soy Lecithin), Natural Flavour].
So, what are the typical ingredients in sugar-free chocolate? Numerous alternative sweeteners are used to add flavor, texture and bulk (underlined).
In sugar-free chocolate, polydextrose, maltitol, erythritol and stevia (steviol glycosides) provide the sweetness and mouth-feel that is normally provided by sugar. While they are safe to eat in moderation, the body is unable to completely absorb polydextrose, maltitol and erythritol and they may produce unwanted side effects if consumed in excess, hence the warning printed in capitals on sugar-free chocolate wrappers: “EXCESS CONSUMPTION MAY HAVE A LAXATIVE EFFECT.”
Well Naturally claims their sugar-free chocolate is:
- Naturally sweetened with stevia. Contains no artificial colours, flavours, preservatives or sweeteners.
- A suitable treat for those wanting to reduce their sugar intake, such as diabetics and those watching their weight [when eaten in moderation].
Are sugar-replacers “natural” ingredients?
Companies such as Well Naturally claim the sugar-replacements they use are natural, not artificial. Then why do these sugar-replacements (polydextrose, erythritol and stevia) sound so artificial?
While the leaves of the stevia plant are sweet, the manufacturer does not simply crush leaves and mix them into the chocolate. Stevia is produced using a five-step process that involves interactions with chemicals such as resins and alcoholic solvents to change the stevia leaves into steviol glycosides. Natural? Not really. Not like honey from the hive. The word ‘natural’ is not well regulated in the food industry and tends to be subjectively interpreted by manufacturers.
What about “no artificial” claims?
“No artificial” claims often make baddies of things that are chemically identical to their “natural” counterparts. For example, synthetic amyl acetate made in the laboratory (artificial) is exactly the same as the amyl acetate extracted from a banana (natural) and both are banana flavours. Massoya lactone can be sourced from the Malaysian massoya tree or synthesised in a lab to give coconut flavour. The flavours are the same, only the source differs. When you get right down to it, if we ate less processed foods the “artificial” colours and flavours problem would almost disappear. A cynic might say the proliferation of “no artificial” claims just gives us permission to eat other versions of highly processed, nutrient-poor foods …
It’s true that there’s a very small proportion of the population who are very sensitive to “artificial” colours and flavours, but they are sadly also sensitive to naturally occurring chemicals in food as well. While some artificial colours have been implicated in behavioural changes in children, the doses are large and the effects small, and the mechanism of effect is poorly understood. A systematic review and meta-analysis found there isn’t enough evidence to support eliminating artificial colours in children with ADHD. What about preservatives? Chocolate doesn’t typically have any – and in our house it doesn’t last long enough to need them.
Is sugar-free chocolate suitable for people with diabetes or who are trying to lose weight?
We put together the following table to see how the nutritional content differs in 100g of dark and milk chocolate compared to the same amount of sugar-free chocolate.
Well Naturally claim that when eaten in moderation, their sugar-free chocolate is a suitable treat for people living with diabetes and those who are watching their weight. The Well Naturally Rich Dark Chocolate contains 28% fewer calories while Healtheries No Added Sugar Milk Chocolate Smooth Centre contains 14% fewer calories; therefore it does offer a saving (if you can stop at one). Despite these calorie savings, sugar-free chocolates are still calorie-dense and contain large amounts of saturated fats. Just a few bites (21g bar) of Healtheries No Added Sugar Milk Chocolate Smooth Centre contains the same amount of calories as a 200g (7oz) large apple with far less tummy-filling power.
The significantly lower carbohydrate content of sugar-free chocolate may be of benefit for people counting carbs to manage their diabetes, but this is less of an issue if portions are limited (100g chocolate is too much at a sitting for anyone).
Diabetes Australia says, “a healthy eating plan for diabetes can include some sugar…however foods that are high in added sugars and poor sources of nutrients should be consumed sparingly…foods and drinks that have been sweetened with an alternative sweetener such as…sugar-free lollies etc, are best enjoyed occasionally…” And not to promote overconsumption in any way, but the fact is regular chocolate has a low GI. Everybody – including people with diabetes – can enjoy small portions of regular treat foods and don’t need sugar-free versions. In our experience reframing treats as better for you because there’s no sugar added gives us license to eat more and negates any kilojoule saving- we’re illogical creatures!
The un-plugged truth
While sugar-free chocolate may offer some advantages at Easter time there is no real need for it. Don’t mistake sugar-free chocolate for a health food. Enjoy small portions of the best chocolate you can afford and savour it slowly and mindfully with respect and appreciation. – Thanks to Rachel Ananin AKA TheSeasonalDietitian.com for her assistance with this article.
Nicole Senior is an Accredited Nutritionist, author, consultant, cook, food enthusiast and mother who strives to make sense of nutrition science and delights in making healthy food delicious.