What You Should Know About Sugar Alcohols

An expert weighs in
man daughter reading food label in market

If you’re health-conscious or have diabetes, you’re likely a pro at reading food labels. But what about products that use sugar alcohol as a sweetener?

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“Sugar alcohols may have a slight influence on your blood sugars, but overall, they’re safe to include as part of a balanced diet,” says registered dietitian Tegan Bissell, RD.

But too much sugar alcohol in your diet can have unpleasant side effects. Bissell tells us what we need to know to reap the benefits and avoid the drawbacks.

What is sugar alcohol?

The term “sugar alcohol” is misleading: It’s neither sugar nor alcohol. “Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate and have a chemical structure that’s similar to sugar,” says Bissell.

Food manufacturers use sugar alcohols to sweeten their products while reducing calories. “They stimulate the tongue’s sweet taste buds, adding flavor without extra sugar or calories,” explains Bissell. “Food companies can market their foods as low-carb, sugar-free or diabetes-friendly without sacrificing taste.”

Common sugar alcohols include:

  • Xylitol.
  • Erythritol.
  • Sorbitol.
  • Maltitol.

Sugar alcohol vs. sugar

Bissell says that while some sugar alcohols come from fruits and vegetables, most are artificial. Sugar is 100% natural — exclusively coming from fruits, plants, vegetables and milk.

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One difference? “Sugar is also digested easily and used for energy in the body,” says Bissell. “Sugar alcohols, on the other hand, are not absorbed or digested fully.”

Bissell notes that sugar alcohols have some benefits over regular sugar, including:

  • Fewer calories: Unlike sugar, which has about 4 calories per gram, sugar alcohol has just over two. “They taste almost as sweet as sugar with about half the calories,” says Bissell. “If you’re conscious of your caloric intake, you could benefit from eating foods made with sugar alcohols in place of regular sugar.”
  • Easier blood sugar management: Unlike regular sugar, sugar alcohols don’t cause sudden blood sugar spikes. “They are considered a low glycemic index food and may cause only a slight rise in blood sugar levels,” says Bissell.
  • Less dental risk: Sugar alcohols don’t contribute to tooth decay as sugar does. “You may notice xylitol in your toothpaste, which helps make it taste better while cleaning your teeth.”
  • Fewer carbs: “If you’re on a low-carb diet, you can have sugar alcohols. They are much lower in carbs and have a lower glycemic index than regular forms of sugar.”

Sugar alcohols vs. artificial sweeteners

Though they’re both manufactured, sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and saccharin, are not the same thing. Unlike sugar alcohols, artificial sweeteners are chemicals that provide an intense level of sweetness and no calories. You can also buy artificial sweeteners as a sugar substitute for baking and cooking.

Is sugar alcohol bad for you?

Bissell says sugar alcohols can be a safe addition to your diet — in moderation. Studies have shown 10 to 15 grams a day of sugar alcohols are safe. But there are three potential sugar alcohol side effects:

1. Gastrointestinal side effects are possible

Because the body can’t fully digest sugar alcohols, you may experience some unpleasant GI symptoms soon after you eat them. 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, upset stomach and diarrhea. Erythritol appeared to have milder effects on the stomach, only increasing nausea and gas when given in large doses.

“If you eat foods with sugar alcohols several times a day, you could wind up with some tummy troubles,” notes Bissell. “If you notice this happening, use caution or find another sweetener option.”

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2. Sugar alcohols are not a weight management silver bullet

It’s still possible to gain weight when eating foods that contain sugar alcohol, especially if you eat them in excess. They’re low in calories and carbs, but not free of them.

3. Sugar alcohols tend to have a laxative effect

This effect is more common in children and people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Instead of absorbing sugar alcohols in the stomach, they can linger in the intestines and ferment. Doctors even prescribe some types as laxatives.

How can you tell if a food contains sugar alcohols?

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. Food makers produce it from corncobs.
  • Maltitol is about 75% as sweet as sugar and comes from corn syrup.
  • Erythritol is 60% to 80% as sweet as sugar. It comes from things like pears, soy sauce and watermelon. Manufacturers make it by fermenting corn.
  • Mannitol is 50% to 70% as sweet as sugar. Naturally, it occurs in carrots, olives and asparagus. Manufacturers make it from seaweed.
  • Isomalt is about 45% to 65% as sweet as sugar. It comes from beet sugar.
  • Sorbitol is about half as sweet as sugar. Naturally, it’s in apples and pears. Food manufacturers make it from corn syrup.
  • Lactitol provides about 40% of the sweetness of sugar. Manufacturers make it from milk.
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates range between 40% and 90% as sweet as sugar. Manufacturers produce them by mixing different sugar alcohols.

Besides reading the ingredients on food labels, Bissell says you can identify products containing sugar alcohol by looking for:

  • Baked goods, candy and gums labeled “sugar-free.”
  • Labels that state: “Excessive consumption can cause a laxative effect.”

The bottom line: As with most foods, it’s best to consume products with sugar alcohol only in moderation. However, if you are mindful of sugar alcohol side effects, it can help reduce your carbohydrate intake when you eat it as part of a healthy diet.

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