What Are Sugar Alcohols?

Candy

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Sugar alcohols, such as maltitol, erythritol, xylitol, and sorbitol, are a type of carbohydrate used to sweeten products such as candy, gum, and baked goods. Despite their name, sugar alcohols are neither sugar nor alcohol. While sweet, they do not impact blood sugar like table sugar.

Foods that contain sugar alcohols are usually labeled as "sugar-free," "no sugar added," "low-carb," or "keto-friendly." Erythritol has the least impact on blood sugar levels. But every sweetener has pros and cons. Consider how you might use sugar alcohols to find the best product for you.

Definition

Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate called "polyols." Part of their chemical structure resembles sugar and part resembles alcohol. Though the word "alcohol" is part of their name, sugar alcohols do not lead to intoxication.

Some of these sweeteners occur naturally in plants, including berries and other fruits. Some of them are extracted directly from plants. However, most sugar alcohols are manufactured from sugars and starches through a chemical process.

Food manufacturers may use sugar alcohols to add sweetness and flavor to products and also act as a bulking or texturizing agent. Sugar alcohols may be combined with artificial sweeteners in some foods.

Types of Sugar Alcohols

To find out if your food contains a sugar alcohol, check the Nutrition Facts label. You may see the generic term "sugar alcohols" listed in the ingredients list. Sometimes you'll see the specific name of the sugar alcohol if only one is added to the food.

Maltitol

Maltitol has 75% of the blood sugar impact of table sugar, but also only 75% of the sweetness. Maltitol is commonly used in hard candy, chewing gum, ice cream, chocolate-flavored desserts, and nutrition bars because of its appealing taste and texture.

Erythritol

Erythritol is found naturally in foods such as grapes, pears, melons, mushrooms, and certain fermented foods. Since it has the least impact on blood sugar, many people who follow a low-carb or low sugar diet use erythritol. However, it can have a cool taste that some people do not like.

Sorbitol

Sorbitol is manufactured from corn syrup, but it is also found naturally in fruits and vegetables. It is often used to make sugar-free gums and candies but can cause stomach discomfort or diarrhea. Foods with sorbitol must include a warning that states: “Excess consumption may have a laxative effect.”

Isomalt

This tooth-friendly sweetener resists crystallization, so it is sometimes used to make hard candies, cough drops, or toffee. However, some consumers find that it causes gas and other stomach problems.

Xylitol

This sweetener is found naturally in plums, strawberries, cauliflower, and pumpkin. Xylitol is often found in chewing gums, mints, and dental care products such as toothpaste and mouthwash.

Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysate

This corn-derived sweetener is often used in mouthwashes and baked goods. Estimates regarding its relative sweetness vary. Some say it is as low as 33% as sweet as sugar and others estimate it as high as 90%.

Mannitol

Mannitol is manufactured using seaweed, but can be found naturally in fruits and vegetables including pineapples, olives, asparagus, sweet potatoes, and carrots. Mannitol can be hard on the stomach, sometimes causing bloating and diarrhea. Like sorbitol, foods with mannitol must carry a warning about its potential laxative effect.

How Sugar Alcohols Affect You

It is a common misconception that sugar alcohols have no effect on your blood sugar. Though sugar alcohols have fewer calories than sugar, most of them aren't as sweet, so you need more to get the same sweetening effect. However, trying to find the specific grams of sugar alcohols can be tricky.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food manufacturers may voluntarily list the amount of sugar alcohols on the Nutrition Facts Label under Total Carbohydrate. However, food manufacturers are required to list sugar alcohols on the nutrition label if a statement such as "sugar-free" or "no sugar added" is used to describe the food.

Speak to a registered dietitian or a diabetes educator to get more information about how carbs from sugar alcohols fit into your complete meal plan.

Health experts—especially those who advise people with diabetes—recommend that you check the total grams of carbohydrate in any food that you consume, even if it is labeled sugar-free or no sugar added. The total carbohydrates contained in food (even those labeled "sugar-free" or "no sugar added") will impact your glucose levels.

Sweetness Comparison

Compare different sugar alcohols by glycemic index (GI) and calories per gram (cal/g). While glycemic index can help you assess how a food might affect your blood sugar, keep in mind that GI is a range, rather than a fixed number, and different studies yield different results.

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

Benefits of Sugar Alcohols

Consuming sweet treats and other foods with sugar alcohols (and therefore less sugar) may provide some health benefits.

Reduced Sugar Intake

Sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed by the body. As a result, the blood-sugar impact of sugar alcohols is generally less than that of sugar, and they provide fewer calories per gram.

For people who are trying to cut back on their sugar intake, foods with sugar alcohols may be a smart first step to transition to healthier foods with natural sweetness (such as fresh or frozen fruit). The end goal is to consume very few added sugars.

Improved Dental Health

Sugar alcohols don't promote tooth decay as sugars do. Additionally, some pair well with mint, so they are often used to sweeten chewing gum, toothpaste, and other dental products and can help freshen your breath. Xylitol actually inhibits bacterial growth in the mouth.

May Help Cut Calories

If you are following a lower-calorie eating plan, foods with sugar alcohols are likely to be lower in carbs and calories than their traditional counterparts. This may make it easier for some to stick to their eating plan to reach their desired weight.

Possible Side Effects

Consider some of the potential downsides and side effects before making a decision about including sugar alcohols in your diet.

Stomach Problems

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

Erythritol is less likely to cause these adverse intestinal symptoms. However, people have varying reactions to sugar alcohols, so careful experimentation is advised. One serving of sugar alcohol should not cause much distress.

Eating Past Fullness

Foods that are labeled "sugar-free" or "no sugar added" are commonly eaten to the point of discomfort because people believe that these foods have little effect on their waistline and health. However, these foods often don't provide adequate energy, nutritional value, or satisfaction, so many people end up making up for it later.

Dangerous to Dogs

In large amounts, xylitol can be dangerous to dogs. The sweetener generates a rapid insulin release that can result in life-threatening liver problems or hypoglycemia. The low blood sugar can result in a loss of coordination, depression, collapse, and seizures in as little as 30 minutes following ingestion.

If you have a dog at home and purchase foods with xylitol, talk to your vet about the best ways to keep your pet safe.

Cooking With Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols are generally not used in home cooking, but rather in large scale food manufacturing. However, there may be occasions when you want to use one of these products at home.

You can purchase sweeteners such as erythritol and xylitol in granulated or powdered form to use in sweet treats. However, since these products are not as sweet as sugar, they usually need to be combined with another sweetener to get the desired effect. For example, Truvia brand sweetener combines erythritol with stevia to get a level of sweetness that works well in recipes.

You may need to experiment with the sweetener and the recipe that you choose. You may notice a difference in texture in baked goods, although sugar alcohols are usually better at providing bulk in baked goods than artificial sweeteners.

If your recipe is for a beverage or a sweet sauce, you may notice that sugar alcohols don't blend well. For example, erythritol may cause a grainy texture in liquids.

The use of sugar alcohols may change the taste of your food slightly. Follow product instructions and take some time to experiment in the kitchen to find the right mix.

1 Source
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Livesey G. Health potential of polyols as sugar replacers, with emphasis on low glycaemic properties. Nutr Res Rev. 2003;16(2):163-91. doi: 0.1079/NRR200371

Additional Reading