How Sugar Alcohols Can Impact Your Health

powdered erythritol in a glass bowl
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Sugar alcohols are found in many items including candy, gum, and baked goods that are labeled as "sugar-free," "no sugar added," "low-carb," or "keto-friendly." Maltitol, xylitol, and sorbitol are examples of sugar alcohols you may see on an ingredients label. Despite their name, sugar alcohols are neither sugar nor alcohol. While sweet, they do no impact blood sugar like real table sugar.

Understanding Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate called "polyols". Part of their chemical structure resembles sugar and part resembles alcohol, hence their confusing name. Examples of common sugar alcohols are:

  • Maltitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Isomalt
  • Xylitol

Sugar alcohols occur naturally in plants. Some of them are extracted directly from plants, such as sorbitol, which is made from corn syrup, and mannitol, which comes from seaweed. However, most sugar alcohols are manufactured from sugars and starches.

Benefits

Sugar alcohols are similar to sugar in some ways, but they are not completely absorbed by the body. Because of this, the blood-sugar impact of sugar alcohols is generally less than that of sugar, and they provide fewer calories per gram. Erythritol has the least impact on blood sugar of all sugar alcohols.

Additionally, sugar alcohols don't promote tooth decay as sugars do, so they are often used to sweeten chewing gum. Xylitol actually inhibits bacterial growth in the mouth.

It's important to note, however, that the different types of sugar alcohols act very differently in the body (see chart below).

Possible Side Effects

Sugar alcohols are incompletely digested and absorbed, so they give many people a stomach ache. They can ferment in the intestines and cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea.

Erythritol is less likely to cause these adverse intestinal symptoms than other sugar alcohols. However, individuals have different reactions to different sugar alcohols, so careful experimentation is advised. One serving of sugar alcohol should not cause much distress, but many people go overboard on the low-carb sweets and run into problems.

Though the word "alcohol" is part of their name, sugar alcohols do not lead to intoxication.

How They're Represented on Food Labels

The names of the individual sugar alcohols will be on the ingredient list of any product that contains them. They will also be included in the amount of carbohydrate on the label, either in the total or on a separate line for sugar alcohols.

In the United States, if the product is labeled “sugar-free” or "no added sugar," the manufacturer must show the sugar alcohol count separately.

Sugar Alcohols vs. Other Carbohydrates

Though sugar alcohols have fewer calories than sugar, most of them aren't as sweet, so more must be used to get the same sweetening effect.

A good example is maltitol, which has 75 percent of the blood sugar impact of sugar, but also only 75 percent of sweetness.

Still, there is a range of sweetness and impact on blood sugar among the different sugar alcohols.

The chart below compares different sugar alcohols by glycemic index (GI) and calories per gram (cal/g). Keep in mind that the glycemic index is a range, rather than a fixed number and different studies yield different results.

Comparison of Sugar and Sugar Alcohols

Ingredient Sweetness GI Cal/g
Sucrose (sugar) 100% 60 4
Maltitol Syrup 75% 52 3
Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysate  33% 39 2.8
Maltitol 75% 36 2.7
Xylitol 100% 13 2.5
Isomalt 55% 9 2.1
Sorbitol 60% 9 2.5
Lactitol 35% 6 2
Mannitol 60% 0 1.5
Erythritol 70% 0 0.2
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