What are Sugar Alcohols and Should I Care?

white sugar cubes on blue textile
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I have a love hate relationship with sugar. It’s something that I know I should limit in my diet, but some of the sweet treats that I absolutely love are full of sugar. Not to mention that sugar is found in many common items such as salad dressings, condiments, sauces, breads, and the list goes on. Each January I focus on cleansing and eating clean. The first time I did this I was blown away at all the hidden sugars in foods that seem healthy.

The American Heart Association recommends that men eat no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams) and women 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day. The shocking fact is its estimated that adults eat closer to 77 grams per day. When I read this, I thought to myself how it is possible that someone could consume that much sugar. But when we start looking at all the foods and beverages that sugar lurks in, it’s easier to understand.  

Sugar alcohols have become popular in the last few years to help consumers reduce their sugar consumption and caloric intake. I decided to dig in to understand what sugar alcohols are and how they can impact my body.

At a high level, sugar alcohols are compounds derived from sugars such as glucose or fructose. The molecule is chemically modified to create sugar alcohol. There are some sugar alcohols that can occur naturally via fermentation in some fruits and vegetables. But they are mostly created and added to packaged foods to reduce calories while adding sweetness. Think of protein or energy bars, desserts, ice cream, flavored jam or jelly spreads, candy and gum.

Sugar alcohols are common in candy, gum, toothpaste and mouthwash because they add a sweet taste without causing cavities. Interestingly, they can create a cooling effect so are commonly used with mint flavors.

I also found it interesting that our small intestine doesn’t absorb sugar alcohols in the same way that sugar is absorbed. This is why a common side effect of eating foods with sugar alcohols is that they cause gas, bloating and diarrhea. Because our bodies respond differently to sugar alcohols than to sugar, there is a lot of information on how diabetics can incorporate them into their food plan. I am not a doctor and am not going to discuss this topic. If you are a diabetic, I strongly encourage you to discuss this with your doctor.

The best way to know if a food contains sugar alcohols is to learn to read a nutrition label. Sometimes you will see grams of sugar alcohols per serving on the nutrition label. However, this is not required, so you should read the ingredients as well and look for the sugar alcohols I’ve called out below.

The most common types of sugar alcohols are Xylitol, Maltitol, Erythritol and Sorbitol.  

Xylitol occurs naturally in some fruits and vegetables and is considered natural. It is one of the more common sugar alcohols and tastes very similar to sugar. It is found in sugar-free gum, candies, mints and oral care products. Xylitol is extremely toxic to dogs, so please keep anything containing xylitol away from your pets.

Maltitol tastes very similar to sugar and has a similar texture; however, it’s not absorbed by the small intestine and can cause gastrointestinal issues. It is most commonly used in baked goods, sugar-free chocolates and candies.

Erythritol is becoming more widely used because it has a thick creamy texture making it popular for use in low-calorie ice creams and icings. Erythritol also doesn’t seem to cause gas, bloating or diarrhea if consumed in small amounts.

Sorbitol is very common in sugar-free foods and drinks. Once again, it’s recommended that you consume less than 10 grams per day, or you may experience digestive issues.

Some other less common sugar alcohols are Mannitol, Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH), Isomalt and Lactitol.

There are some packaged foods that I’ve eaten, and they’ve caused me to experience gastrointestinal issues. At the time, I didn’t realize what was causing it, but now I will be more aware of what sweeteners are being used. At the end of the day, I’m not going to eliminate sugar or sugar alcohols entirely from my diet. However, I do believe that moderation is the key to enjoying some of my favorite sweet treats.

“Moderation. Small helpings. Sample a little bit of everything. These are the secrets of happiness and good health.”

Julia Child

Reference Materials:

Joe Leech, MS and Jillian Kubala, MS, RD, “What Are Sugar Alcohols, and Are They a Healthy Sugar Swap?”, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/sugar-alcohols-good-or-bad.

 Melinda Ratini, DO, MS, “What Are Sugar Alcohols?”, https://www.webmd.com/diet/what-are-sugar-alcohols#1.

Elisabeth Anderson and Jinpeng Li, “Sweetener – Sugar Alcohols”, https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/sweetener-sugar-alcohols.

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