You go to the grocery store and read some food labels and notice sugar alcohols listed as part of the ingredients. It doesn’t mean it is sugar, nor does it mean it is alcohol. So yes, the name is a bit misleading. Or maybe you’ve heard of the big craze with labels that read “sugar free” or “no sugar added”. Instead they use sugar alcohols which are a form of carbohydrate that add some sweetness to foods and are added to your favorite ice creams, cookies, gum, chocolates and countless other food items in your local grocery store.
The most common sugar alcohols you will see and hear about are:
- Erythritol – 0.2 calories per gram and 60% to 80% as sweet as sugar
- Isomalt - 2 calories per gram and 45% to 65% as sweet as sugar
- Lactitol – 2 calories per gram and 30% to 40% as sweet at sugar
- Maltitol – 2.1 calories per gram and 90% as sweet as sugar
- Mannitol – 1.6 calories per gram and 50% to 70% as sweet as sugar
- Sorbitol – 2.6 calories per gram and 50% to 70% as sweet as sugar
- Xylitol - 2.4 calories per gram and as sweet as sugar
What They Are:
As noted, the term “sugar alcohol” can be very misleading. And keep in mind, there is no alcohol in this sugar substitute, so take a deep breath – you will not be getting tipsy! Despite the name, there is no sugar in sugar alcohols either. The name originates from their chemical structures, which are similar to the chemical structures of both alcohol and sugar. Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate that is used to sweeten foods, but have half the calories of sugar.
Where They Come From:
Sugar alcohols originate from various plant products, such as fruits and vegetables. Each type of sugar alcohol will vary in sweetness, ranging from 25% to 100% + the sweetness of real sugar; also dependent on the food that it is being used in. The carbohydrates contained in these plant products is then altered through a chemical process, which then leads to the production of the sugar alcohols you are familiar with and found on food labels.
Why They Have Carbs:
Sugar alcohols are a known type of carbohydrate named “polyols”. Part of the chemical structure of sugar alcohols resembles sugar, and another part resembles alcohol. But sugar alcohols are carbohydrates your body does not completely absorb, but are still classified as a type of carbohydrate, as they will affect blood glucose levels to a certain degree; varying for each person – a spike in blood sugar levels for some, while no spike at all in others. When you view a food label, you will find that the sugar alcohol will be accounted for in the total carbohydrates column under the Nutritional Facts.
Tips for Carb Counting and Sugar Alcohols
The effect that sugar alcohols have on your blood glucose can vary so it is difficult to know how sugar alcohols will affect your blood glucose levels every time. Because there is less of an effect from sugar alcohols than either sugar or starch, you can use the following tips to estimate how much carbohydrate from a serving to count in your meal plan for foods that contain more than 5 grams of sugar alcohols.
If a food has more than 5 grams of sugar alcohols:
- Subtract ½ the grams of sugar alcohol from the amount of total carbohydrate
- Count the remaining grams of carbohydrate in your meal plan
How They Act In Your System:
Sugar alcohols are similar to sugar, but in fact your body will not absorb them completely. As a result, your blood sugar levels may be impacted very little or not at all. This is great for people who are on low carbohydrate diets or those who are diabetic. But it’s also important to note that all sugar alcohols don’t behave the same exact way.
Sugar alcohols do contain some calories; roughly 2 calories per gram depending on which specific sugar alcohol we are talking about (where sugar itself contains 4 calories per gram). This is due to the fact that sugar alcohols are converted into glucose more slowly, which is how your body metabolizes them. And because your body does not absorb sugar alcohols completely, like fiber they simply pass through your body. But because they are absorbed differently than sugar in the body, gas and bloating are side affects you may experience if too much is consumed.
Are They Safe:
Sugar alcohols have been used for many years, so yes, you can now sleep at night – they are safe! The United States has classified sugar alcohols as safe for consumption by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
With the sweet imitation of sugar and lower calorie count, it would only be fair that they also have some cons, right? Well unfortunately there are some cons. Sugar alcohols can lead to bloating, diarrhea and gas if they are eaten in large quantities, can cause cravings, not to mention we don’t know what the long term affects are yet. According to the American Dietetic Association, consuming more than 50 grams of sorbitol or 20 grams of mannitol per day can cause diarrhea. The FDA requires foods and drinks that contain sorbitol or mannitol to include a warning label describing this laxative effect.
Your personal experience will depend on your body’s level of sensitivity. So to avoid such complications, it’s best to stick to eating less than 50 grams of sugar alcohols per day; and to completely avoid such food items if they cause great discomfort.
How We Burn Them:
Like any other food source that we consume, which contains calories, we need to exercise in order to burn off the calories and maintain a healthy weight. So although sugar alcohols may not affect your blood sugar levels as sugar does, and contain half the calories, if they are not burned off with exercise, you can experience weight gain. So yes, they are a choice, but haven’t been created with the magical ability to cause no weight change either. As a result, straying away from exercise is not an option when consuming foods containing sugar alcohols.
Sugar alcohols are great for satisfying your sweet tooth, as well as helping you manage your waist line and reach your low carb diet goals. Just be sure not to overeat, as you do not want to gain any extra unwanted pounds and to avoid gastrointestinal distress. So yes they contain fewer calories, are safe for diabetics, and you’ll even have a greater smile! How so? Well because sugar alcohols are not metabolized by the bacteria that cause tooth decay, visits to the dentist won’t be so frightening anymore. Another added bonus! Eat these foods in moderation, while continuing with an overall healthy diet.