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What Are Sugar Alcohols?

What You Need to Know

-- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian

If you spend any time looking at nutrition labels, you’ve probably noticed some intriguing ingredients in sweet foods that are touted as diet-friendly, sugar-free, low-carb, or even formulated for people with diabetes. One ingredient, known as sugar alcohol, is a special type of sugar replacement that is frequently found in soft drinks, gums, cookies, and sugar-free candy. Ever wonder what sugar alcohol is doing in these supposedly healthy foods? You're not alone!

What Are Sugar Alcohols?
The term “sugar alcohol” is very misleading. Sugar alcohols get their name from their unique chemical structure, which resembles both sugar and alcohol. But they're neither sugars nor alcohols. In fact, sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate that sweetens foods, but with half the calories of sugar. There are several specific types of sugar alcohols (usually ending with the letters "-ol"). When reading a food label, the following ingredients are actually sugar alcohols:

  • Erythritol
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
  • Isomalt
  • Lactitol
  • Maltitol
  • Mannitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol
Look familiar? You'll find sugar alcohols in a wide variety of foods (gums, pancake syrups, candies, ice creams, baked goods, and fruit spreads), health and beauty products (toothpastes, mouthwashes and breath mints), and even medicines (cough syrups, cough drops and throat lozenges). In the near future they may be found in pie fillings, cake frostings, canned fruit, beverages, yogurt and tabletop sweeteners. <pagebreak>

Why Use Sugar Alcohols?
You may wonder why manufacturers would put sugar alcohols in foods and other products, or why people might seek them out. Here are a few reasons why consumers choose these products:
  • Fewer calories. Sugar alcohols contain fewer calories (0.2 to 3 calories per gram) than sugar (4 calories per gram), making them a diet-friendly choice for people who want to limit their caloric intake, but still enjoy sweet foods.
  • Safe for diabetics. Sugar alcohols are absorbed more slowly (and incompletely) by the body. Unlike regular sugar, they require little or no insulin for metabolism. *People with diabetes should consult their physician, dietitian or other health professional about incorporating sugar alcohols into their daily meal plans.
  • Better dental health. Sugar alcohols do not promote tooth decay since they are not metabolized by the bacteria that produce dental cavities.
  • Fewer drug interactions. Sugar alcohols do not react with the pharmacologic ingredients in medicines as much as sugar sometimes can.
  • Individual tastes. The different types of sugar alcohols vary in sweetness, from being about half as sweet to equally sweet as sugar.
In addition to consumer desires, sugar alcohols appeal to manufacturers too. Here's why: <pagebreak>
  • Sugar alcohols do not lose their sweetness when heated, although many artificial sweeteners do.
  • Sugar alcohols do not absorb water like sugar does. Therefore the surface of foods made with sugar alcohols won't become sticky as quickly as products made with sugar.
  • Molds and bacteria do not grow and multiply on sugar alcohols as well as they do on sugar.
  • They can use a combination of sugar alcohols, sugar and/or artificial sweeteners to give the most pleasant taste, appearance, and texture to a food product.
Are Sugar Alcohols Safe?
Sugar alcohols have been used for years. After careful review, scientists have concluded that they are safe for human consumption. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies some sugar alcohols as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) and others are approved as food additives.

For some people, consuming certain sugar alcohols in excessive amounts may cause gastrointestinal upsets such as gas, bloating and diarrhea. Whether or not you will experience problems will depend on your individual sensitivity level and the other foods you consume at the same time. It is best to find your individual tolerance level when using these food ingredients, and to avoid them if they cause discomfort.
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