What Is Sugar Alcohol — Does It Contain Carbs?
Sugar alcohol is increasingly popular in “diabetes-friendly” foods in the grocery store, but what is it — and is it good for you? Here’s what you need to know.
By: Sue Cotey and Andrea Harris, RNs
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
This ingredient is increasingly popular in “diabetes-friendly” foods in the grocery store, but is it good for you? Here’s what you need to know.
Sugar alcohols, which occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, have a slightly deceptive name: They don’t contain either alcohol or sugar (though they sometimes come from different types of sugar).
Food manufacturers use the sweetener to reduce the amount of calories in a product while still providing sweetness. Unlike sugar, which has about 4 calories per gram, sugar alcohol has just over 2 calories per gram. You’ll often find it in baked goods and sugar-free gum.
Sugar alcohol converts to glucose more slowly than carbohydrates from things like honey, bread, rice and alcohol. It requires almost no insulin for metabolizing and doesn’t cause sudden blood sugar spikes.
Sugar alcohol is generally considered safe for consumption. There are, however, important things to keep in mind.
1. It’s not a good idea to binge on it. Even though labels on products sweetened with sugar alcohol say they are diabetes-friendly or sugar-free, they still contain carbohydrates.They can raise your blood sugar. And, you can also still gain weight when eating foods that contain sugar alcohol, especially if you eat them in excess.
2. It tends to have a laxative effect, particularly in children and people with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). Instead of being fully absorbed in the stomach, sugar alcohols can linger in the intestines and ferment. (Doctors actually prescribe some types of sugar alcohols as laxatives.)
3. Some types cause intestinal discomfort. In a 2006 British study, researchers gave participants doses of sugar or one of two types of sugar alcohol (xylitol and erythritol). Those taking xylitol reported bloating, gas, stomach upset and diarrhea. Erythritol appeared to have a milder effect on the stomach, only increasing nausea and gas when given in large doses.
Just as sugar lurks behind different terms on food labels, sugar alcohol also has many names. When you see one of these products on a label, here’s what you are getting:
As with most foods, it’s best to eat sugar alcohol only in moderation. However, if you are mindful of side effects, it can help reduce your carbohydrate intake when you eat it as part of a healthy diet.