What Is Sugar Alcohol — Does It Contain Carbs?

It’s not calorie-free, so eat with restraint
What Is Sugar Alcohol — Does It Contain Carbs?

By:  Sue Cotey and Andrea Harris, RNs

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If you have diabetes, you are likely a pro at reading food labels — checking carbohydrates is second nature. But what about products that use sugar alcohol as a sweetener?

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.

Is it alcohol or sugar — or what?

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.

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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.

Sounds good so far, but is there a catch?

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.)

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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.

How do you recognize sugar alcohols on food labels?

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:

  • Xylitol, often used in gum, is about as sweet as sugar. It comes from wheat straw and some cereals and is commercially made from corncobs.
  • Maltitol is about 75 percent as sweet as sugar and comes from corn syrup.
  • Erythritol is 60 to 80 percent as sweet as sugar. It is found in things like pears, soy sauce and watermelon and is manufactured by fermenting corn.
  • Mannitol is 50 to 70 percent as sweet as sugar. It is found in carrots, olives and asparagus and is manufactured from seaweed.
  • Isomalt is about 45 to 65 percent as sweet as sugar. It comes from beet sugar.
  • Sorbitol is about half as sweet as sugar. It is found in apples and pears and is manufactured from corn syrup.
  • Lactitol provides about 40 percent the sweetness of sugar. Manufacturers make it from milk.
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates range between 40 and 90 percent as sweet as sugar. Manufacturers produce them by mixing different sugar alcohols.

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.

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