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HEALTHWATCH : For Diabetics, Buying Right Food Could Be Quite a Chore : When it comes to keeping track of sugar content, read between the lines and beware of 'sugar-free' and '100%-natural' labels.

August 19, 1993|LEO SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Take a stroll down a supermarket aisle and you're likely to find shoppers studying the sides of boxes, reading labels on cans, just trying to make sense of all the ingredients in the various food items.

It's enough of a chore for the average consumer to select the right food, with the right balance of carbohydrates, sodium, nutrients, fat, calories and cholesterol. But when the consumer is on a strict diet, choosing the proper items can be a much more difficult and critical task.

People with diabetes, who must constantly monitor their sugar intake to maintain a proper blood sugar level, know this as well as anyone.

It's not enough for diabetics to simply look at content labels for the word "sugar," it takes some reading between the lines. The innocent-looking sweet ingredient has a way of hiding itself, or simply popping up where least expected.

Here are some tips on keeping track of sugar content in foods. Keep in mind, however, that the amount of sugar a diabetic can consume varies from case to case. Also remember that food containing sugar, when consumed as part of a balanced, protein-rich meal, can be safer than if consumed by itself.

"Basically, when you look at an ingredient list, anything that ends with "ose" is a sugar," said Anne Stone, a Westlake dietitian. That means fructose, glucose, sucrose, dextrose, maltose and lactose.

The American Diabetes Assn. recommends also looking out for sugar in the form of corn syrup, molasses, honey, invert sugar, cane sugar, fruit sugar, turbinado sugar and raw sugar.

Fruit sugar is perhaps the most sneaky item on that list.

"People think because it's a natural sugar it is fine to eat as much as you want," said Patrina Edy, a dietitian at St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard. "But it can cause blood sugar to go up."

Stone said some people are fooled by those "100% natural" fruit juices that have "no sugar added."

"There's actually six teaspoons of sugar in an eight-ounce glass of fruit juice," she said.

If the term natural isn't confusing enough, try the phrase "sugar-free." Sounds pretty safe, doesn't it? Someone with diabetes might reasonably assume that sugar-free candies, for instance, would make a good snack.

Not necessarily so.

"Some so-called sugarless products contain sorbitol or mannitol. Those can also affect blood glucose levels," said Edy. "You have to be very careful. They claim to be sugar-free, and they are in a sense, but they could cause the blood glucose level to go up."

There is an increased risk with such "sugar-free" foods because they appear to be totally safe. "Don't get a false sense of security," said Stone.

As you search ingredient labels for the various sugar aliases, remember that their placement on that list indicates their relative quantity.

"If sugar or one of the other (sweeteners) is a primary ingredient, then leave it alone," Edy said. "But if there's a list of 10 ingredients and it's down at the bottom, the food might be just fine. Even bread has some sugar, but it's just a pinch."

Many snack foods, or desserts, fall under the sugar category. For diabetics, particularly children, this can be frustrating. Stone and Edy offered some alternatives to candy bars and brownies.

"A vanilla wafer, a ginger snap, a small piece of angel food cake occasionally, a half-cup of ice cream, diet Jell-O, diet pudding," said Edy. "They can have these substitutes occasionally, but we don't want to push them. These are substitutes, but they have to be taken in small quantities."

Stone suggested cheese-and-crackers, peanut butter crackers, granola bars, raisins, fruit rolls, fruit juice sweetened cookies, sugar-free Popsicles, and sugar-free jams and jellies.

"It's a myth that diabetics can never, ever have the real thing," she said. "They can if they are in good control (of their blood sugar level) and if they compensate with exercise and a full meal."

Bottom line: Check with a physician.

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