With both my parents and other family members suffering with Type 2 Diabetes and with a young child, the sugar content of the food we eat is of massive importance to me, and is partly why we stock very little milk chocolate but a great deal of 100% chocolate. Reading about food, however, I've come to realise that most chocolate which is labelled as 'sugar free' not only does actually contain high levels of substances which aren't very low GI, more often than not tastes awful and has a whole heap of fat in it too.
But what about fat?
Let's take the last point first: fat. The Balance 100g Dark Chocolate bar, for example contains 32.3g of fat, yes, you read that right. Almost a third of the chocolate is fats, and this instance more than 20% of the bar is saturated fat. Just looking at this from a diabetic point of view the American Diabetes Association states that:
A large body of experimental data generated in laboratory animals strongly supports the notion that high-fat diets are associated with impaired insulin action. It appears from animal studies that saturated fats, in particular, have the most detrimental effects. Based on this information, along with the known risks of high saturated fat intake on cardiovascular disease risk, professional organizations such as the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have made recommendations that Americans aim for a total fat intake of no more than 30% of calories and choose foods low in saturated fat.
Now we must not fall in to the trap of thinking that a solitary chocolate bar would be indicative of a person's whole diet, but one would assume that restricting one's sugar intake would be due to a desire to restrict calorie intake or for other health reasons such as diabetes, heart disease, etc. Personally I have not radically reduced my intake of unprocessed fats as I believe they are essential for the development of our bodies. But I feel that far too often people blindly see something labelled as "sugar free" on the front of the packet and miss the "high in fat" information on the reverse. Similarly many health shows these days inform us that foods labelled as 'low in fat' are actually high in sugar and is the whole premise of the book: Salt Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us in which it states that big business consciously sets out to con us.
Cocoa Solids, Cocoa Butter and Cocoa Content
The notion about fats and sugars is absolutely critical to dark and very dark chocolate. A 70% dark chocolate bar may actually have more fats present than an 80% bar. The reason being is that you're not actually looking at the cocoa solids level - the part of the bean with most of the essential acids, but that 70% or 80% would also contain the cocoa butter part of the bean. This is the fatty part. Now, as far as I'm aware, it’s not generally bad for people, but my understanding is that it is 'calorific' and that if you do wish to restrict your calorie intake you should be aware of how much of your chocolate bar is made up from cacao butter. Even 100% chocolate can have varying amounts of cocoa butter.
The problem is that it can be fairly expensive for small producers to establish this information. From our current menu of 100% chocolate bars we can only find Slitti (47.5% fats), Menakao (30%) and Hoja Verde (51%) provide this information on their packaging. From information from HB Ingredients I can see that the Grenada 100% has 54.2% fats and 33.3% saturated fat.
There's always carbohydrates
And that's not the entire story. Many people think that 100% chocolate is sugar free and suitable for diabetics. The interesting aspect is that, as far as I'm aware, all chocolate has some level of carbohydrates and sugars. The Grenada 100% has 0.3% sugar whilst the bars have labels indicating 0% sugars. It is important, therefore, to be aware of the level of carbohydrates present in your chocolate and also look for "dietary fibre".
Even high cocoa content chocolate can have 'high' sugar and fat
With all this in mind, when you look for 'sugar free chocolate' you're most probably looking for something that doesn't exist. Instead you should be looking for 'no-added sugar' chocolate. Even 'low sugar chocolate' has its own issues as even the 85% Pacari, for example, has 35% sugar and 48% fat (which does make me wonder if they have their sums right). But as has been mentioned before, it’s the form the sugar and fats in which they are consumed which is the important thing to consider. Dark chocolate has no added animal fats, and typically no added vegetable fat.
But what about substitutes for sugar?
We do sell a 50% chocolate bar that contains coconut blossom sugar instead of cane sugar. Some say that this is suitable for diabetics, however, it should be pointed out that it may have a lower GI index of around 35 compared to ~60 of cane sugar but it is still not 0, whereas other substituted such as Maltitol may only be around 45 and Xylitol of 13 and Erythritol 0 - all are less sweet than cane sugar and have been reported to have side effects such as bloating, gas and diarrhoea.
What do the sugar substitutes taste like?
I've tried chocolate with sorbitol and maltitol and personally I find the flavour unpleasant. Others may have a different perception, but its simply not for me.
What would I do?
My personal choice is not to consume chocolate excessively and, when I can, go for as high a cocoa content as possible. If you do this then you may actually need less chocolate to satisfy your cravings.
So is sugar free chocolate a con?
I wouldn't say it’s a con as such, but if you see chocolate labelled as 'sugar free', 'low sugar' or 'no added sugar' make sure you read the nutritional information and understand fully how the sugar has been replaced - if at all. If you see an ingredient that you don't know what it is, make sure that you research making use of credible sources, what they are. If you're diabetic then check then ask Diabetes UK and/or a medical professional. Just don't assume that because something has no or low 'sugar' that it will automatically be better for you than other forms of chocolate.
Just remember that most companies rely on consumers not reading the small print. They'll label their products in a way as to appeal to a particular group of people with knowledge that many won't actually read the full ingredients and nutritional list. It's for this reason that we support the Diabetes UK's position statement (pdf) on diabetic labelling and why we're going to be seeking more dietary information to help diabetics, and other customers with specific requirements, to help better informed chocolate buying decisions.
The point is that, as I wrote in the article, 95% of what we know about chocolate is rubbish, sometimes we're happy living in a world of blissful ignorance.
Where can I find out more?
Image © Martyn Wright