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Can sugar-free chocolate compare to the real thing?

"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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