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Taste Test: Sugar-Free Chocolate

Can sugar-free chocolate compare to the real thing?

From the WebMD Archives

"Sugar-free chocolate" sounds like an oxymoron, but it's a booming product category -- in part because diabetes is one of the fastest-growing chronic diseases in America. But do these products really taste like chocolate? And just how healthful are they?

To get some answers, WebMD asked a panel of testers to sample several brands of sugar-free chocolate. And we asked a couple of experts for details on how sugar-free chocolates are made, and their potential benefits.

To sweeten "sugar-free" chocolate, most companies use maltitol, a sugar alcohol that is 90% as sweet as sugar ("sugar alcohol" is a somewhat misleading term, as these are neither sugar nor alcohol). This type of sugar replacer (a group that also includes sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, and isomalt) is particularly helpful to people with diabetes, because only a portion of it is digested and absorbed. And the part that is absorbed through the intestinal tract is absorbed slowly, so there's a relatively little rise in blood sugar.

Kristen McNutt, PhD, JD, nutrition communications consultant to isomalt maker Palatinit, says sugar alcohols give the taste of sugar with only half the calories. Further, she says, they don’t cause cavities, and don’t cause your blood glucose to go up as high as it would if you ate sugar.

"The technology has improved with these sugar replacers and now they taste better, too," says McNutt.

'Sugar-Free' Doesn't Mean 'Fat-Free'

Its sweetness, however, is only one reason the taste of chocolate appeals to so many of us. The other is cocoa butter. And because cocoa butter is rich in saturated fat, so are many of these sugar-free products.

For example, if you enjoy half a sugar-free Yamate Chocolatier milk chocolate bar, you’ll be getting 200 calories, 17 grams of fat, and 10 grams of saturated fat. On the upside, though, you’ll get 4 grams of fiber and 0 grams of sugars (15 grams of maltitol). Five pieces of Russell Stover Sugar Free Chocolate Candy Miniatures add up to 190 calories, 14 grams of total fat, 9 grams of saturated fat, 2 grams of fiber, and 0 grams sugar (20 grams sugar alcohol).

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The lesson here: It's essential to watch your portions of these treats.

As for calories, the good news about sugar-free chocolate is that there are calorie savings. The bad news is that it isn’t an impressive amount.

For example, a 40-gram serving of Dove sugar-free chocolate has 190 calories, while the same amount of regular milk chocolate totals around 210. The difference – 20 calories -- doesn't sound like much. But if you replace the regular candy with the sugar-free version every day, you could save 140 calories a week, and 560 per month.

Side Effects

Here's another reason to make sure you enjoy these sweets in moderation: In fine print on most packages of sugar-free chocolate is a warning: "Excessive consumption may cause a laxative effect."

This is thanks to the part of the sugar alcohol that isn’t absorbed. It goes through the intestinal tract and gets digested by bacteria of the gut. Discomfort ranging from gas to diarrhea can result -- depending on how much of the chocolate you consume and your individual intestinal tract.

"The sugar-free chocolates have definitely been helpful for my clients,” says Tamara James RN, CDE, diabetes educator for the University of California-Davis Medical Center. "But they don’t realize that too much of it will cause them intestinal problems."

The key to avoiding discomfort: "Just don’t pig out on it," says McNutt.

The American Dietetic Association advises that more than 50 grams of sorbitol or 20 grams of mannitol per day can cause diarrhea. You can tell how much sugar alcohol is in a serving of each sugar-free chocolate product by reading the nutrition information label (be sure to pay attention to the listed serving size).

Chocolate Taste Test

Health considerations aside, the real question many of us have is this: Can the taste of sugar-free chocolates compare to the real thing?

To get the answer, WebMD gathered samples of several brands of sugar-free chocolate and assembled a team of 10 tasters that included teens, people with diabetes, people trying to shed extra pounds, and people who just love chocolate.

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These products came from chain drugstores, Whole Foods markets, and Godiva chocolate stores. All were rated on a system of 0-5 stars, with 5 being the highest possible score.



Milk Chocolate

  1. Galler Belgian Royal, made in Belgium (available at Whole Foods Markets)

    Chocolate fix rating: 4 1/2 stars

    Taste comments: Taste and texture is great! This brand fooled me into thinking it was regular chocolate. I would definitely buy this chocolate again and again. Love its creamy and smooth consistency; it has that Swiss chocolate taste and texture.

    Cost: $5.99 for a 100-gram bar

    Sugar replacer: Maltitol

    First four ingredients: Maltitol, cocoa butter, full cream milk powder, cocoa paste

    Nutrition information: Not available (European nutrition label).



  2. Dove Sugar Free Rich Dark Chocolates with Chocolate Crème

    Chocolate fix rating: 3 1/2 stars

    Taste comments: Nice smooth texture and rich, dark chocolate taste.

    Cost: $3.29 for a 96-gram bag

    Sugar replacer: Maltitol

    First four ingredients: maltitol, chocolate processed with alkali, chocolate, cocoa butter

    Nutrition information: 5 pieces (40 grams) contain 190 calories, 15 grams fat, 10 grams saturated fat, 0 grams sugar, 17 grams sugar alcohol, 3 grams fiber



  3. Dove Sugar Free Rich Dark Chocolates with Raspberry Crème

    Chocolate fix rating: 3 1/2 stars

    Taste comments: Very nice flavor and texture.

    Cost: $3.29 for a 96-gram bar

    Sugar replacer: Maltitol

    First four ingredients: maltitol, chocolate processed with alkali, chocolate, cocoa butter

    Nutrition information: 5 pieces (40 grams) contain 190 calories, 15 grams fat, 10 grams saturated fat, 0 grams sugar, 16 grams sugar alcohol, 3 grams fiber



  4. Yamate Chocolatier Sugar Free Milk Chocolate available at Whole Foods Markets)

    Chocolate fix rating: 3 1/2 stars

    Taste comments: Nice creamy texture and rich chocolate flavor.

    Cost: $3.39 for an 85-gram bar

    Sugar replacer: Maltitol (a sugar alcohol)

    First four ingredients: Chocolate liquor, maltitol, cocoa butter, milk fat

    Nutrition information: Half of the bar (42 grams) contains 200 calories, 17 grams fat, 10 grams saturated fat, 0 grams sugar, 15 grams maltitol, 4 grams fiber



  5. Godiva Sugar Free Chocolate Bar with almonds (available at Godiva stores)

    Chocolate fix rating: 2 1/2 stars

    Taste comments: Can’t taste the chocolate very well; the almonds dominate the flavor of the bar. Consistency great but would prefer it without the nuts.

    Cost: $3 for a 42-gram bar

    Sugar replace: Maltitol

    First four ingredients: maltitol, chocolate processed with alkali, chocolate, cocoa butter

    Nutrition information: 5 pieces (40 grams) contain 190 calories, 15 grams fat, 10 grams saturated fat, 0 grams sugar, 17 grams sugar alcohol, 3 grams fiber



  6. Hershey’s Sugar Free Chocolate Candy (miniature chocolate bars)

    Chocolate fix rating: 1 1/2 stars

    Taste comments: Has a slightly strange flavor, chalky texture.

    Cost: About $2.19 for an 85-gram bag

    Sugar replacer: Maltitol

    First four ingredients: Maltitol, chocolate, cocoa butter, cream (milk)

    Nutrition Information: 5 pieces (40 grams) contain 170 calories, 13 grams fat, 8 grams saturated fat, 0 grams sugar, 21 grams sugar alcohols, 2 grams fiber



  7. Sugar Free Russell Stover Chocolate Candy Miniatures

    Chocolate fix rating: 1 1/2 stars

    Taste comments: Not as smooth a texture and not as much flavor as some of the other choices.

    Cost: $3.19 for a 170-gram box

    Sugar replacer: Maltitol and Isomalt

    First four ingredients: Maltitol, cocoa butter, chocolate, isomalt

    Nutrition information: 5 pieces (40 grams) contain 190 calories, 14 grams fat, 9 grams saturated fat, 0 grams sugar, 20 grams sugar alcohol, 2 grams fiber

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Turtles (Pecan Clusters)

  1. Nestle Turtles Sugar Free

    Chocolate fix rating: 3 stars

    Taste comments: OK caramel flavor. Texture is off: too runny, melts away too soon. Slightly off flavor, but otherwise tastes pretty good.

    Cost: $1.99 for a 92-gram bag

    Sugar replacer: Maltitol

    First four ingredients: maltitol syrup, chocolate, pecans, cashews (also palm oil)

    Nutrition information: 3 pieces (35 grams) contain 150 calories, 11 grams fat, 6 grams saturated fat, 0 grams sugar, 17 grams sugar alcohol, <1 gram fiber



  2. Russell Stover Net Carb Pecan Delights

    Chocolate fix rating: 2 stars

    Taste comments: Sweet and chewy but no flavor of chocolate and minimal of caramel. Nice texture, slight possible aftertaste, would buy again.

    Cost: $2.99 for a 99-gram bag

    Sugar replacer: Maltitol and Splenda

    First four ingredients for chocolate candy: Maltitol, cocoa butter, chocolate, sodium caseinate Nutrition information: 2 pieces (33 grams) contain 150 calories, 11 grams fat, 5 grams saturated fat, 0 grams sugar, 14 grams sugar alcohols, 3 grams fiber

The Bottom Line

So is sugar-free chocolate worth the price of admission? Most of the tasters thought some were, and some weren’t. Even though all the companies use pretty much the same major ingredients, there is quite a difference in flavor and texture between the brands.

Our testers had differences of opinion as well. For example, while one taster rated the Godiva brand 4 stars and said she would definitely buy it again (but without the nuts), another gave it just one star. So you can use our ratings as a guide, but draw your own personal conclusions.

The calorie savings with these products are small, but -- as long as you control your portions -- they can add up for someone who eats a little bit of chocolate every day.

Perhaps the person these products benefit most is someone with diabetes, who wants to enjoy a bite of chocolate without worrying so much about raising blood sugar levels.

For this benefit, many of these sugar-free chocolates are worth their weight in gold.

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sources

SOURCES: Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Feb. 2004, vol 104, Issue 2: pp 255-275. Kristen McNutt, PhD, JD, president, Consumer Choices, Inc.; nutrition communications consultant, Palatinit. Tamara James, RN, CDE, diabetes educator, Department of Endocrinology, University of California-Davis Medical Center.

© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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