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Low-carb sweets: the low-down

August 04, 2003|Jane E. Allen | Times Staff Writer

Giving up bread and pasta is one thing. But life without chocolate? It's simply unimaginable for some dieters trying to slash their carb intake.

Realizing this, candy makers and other food companies are marketing low-carbohydrate chocolates for adherents of the Atkins diet and other eating plans that restrict starchy and sugary foods. Dieters can choose among mint patties, peanut butter cups, toffee squares and even old-fashioned chocolate bars.

But though the labels may be new, the low-carb treats are no different from many sugar-free chocolates that diabetics have been buying for years. "It's exactly the same," said Leslie Bonci, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn. And they have their own downsides.

Manufacturers acknowledge that the low-carb candies contain the same sugar replacers as sugar-free chocolates, but say that the new product packages will make more dieters aware of their snacking options.

"Even if the products are similar," said John O'Hara, a marketing vice president for Russell Stover Inc., "there's still a need to target the right consumer." The company has launched a "low-carb" chocolate line on top of its successful sugar-free line.

The new candies -- and some of their forerunners for diabetics -- are sweetened with sugar alcohols, such as lactitol, maltitol, sorbitol and erythritol, which don't have the aftertaste of such no-calorie sugar substitutes as saccharine and aspartame (NutraSweet).

More important, the sugar alcohols don't send levels of blood sugar or insulin soaring, a quality important to controlling sugar levels in diabetics and in keeping dieters' bodies from breaking carbohydrates down into sugar and turning the excess into fat.

But they're much more slowly absorbed than common table sugar and don't get fully digested until they hit the lower reaches of your intestines.

That means, in some people, they can produce gastrointestinal distress such as gas, bloating and diarrhea.

"There are varying degrees of sensitivity. Some people [develop symptoms] with as little as one piece of chocolate," said Bonci, a registered dietitian at the University of Pittsburgh. "But most people aren't eating just one piece."

And although the candies may be advertised as containing just a few "absorbable carbs" or "net-effective carbs," a close look at the labels reveals they have the same amount of "total carbohydrates" as standard versions made with sugar.

For example, an Atkins Endulge Chocolate Crunch bar contains 15 grams of total carbohydrates. But after you subtract the 10 grams of sugar alcohol from maltitol and 3 grams of fiber, there are 2 grams of "effective carbs."

And these sugar-free chocolates are not exactly diet foods.

One reason they taste so good and are so creamy is that they contain all the fat of regular chocolate, and nearly all the calories, not to mention the fat and calories contributed by the nuts and additions.

No matter who's biting into it, that Atkins bar still has 150 calories and 12 grams of fat. Bonci says most people would be nutritionally better off snacking on an 80-calorie apple.

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