People love the taste of sweet. At Fooducate, we often write about the dangers of excess sugar in the American diet. We also advise against the consumption of artificial sweeteners because of potential health risks.
There is a third category of sweeteners that we haven’t discussed much, sugar alcohols. Here is a brief overview for your convenience.
1. Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates with a chemical structure similar to both alcohol and sugar. Hence the name.
2. Besides adding sweetness to foods, sugar alcohols also serve as thickeners, providing bulk and texture.
3. There are several many types of sugar alcohols, differing in their application in food, sweetness, and caloric value. The most widely used sugar alcohols are glycerol, erythritol, arabitol, ribitol, xylitol, mannitol, sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, lactitol, isomalt, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH). Don’t be alarmed, HSH has nothing to do with trans-fats or hydrogenated oils.
4. Sugar alcohols are not as sweet as table sugar. See the table below for average levels compared to sugar. The sweetness level of the sugar alcohol also varies based on the other ingredients in the product.
5. Mints and chewing gums often use one or more sugar alcohols. Unlike regular sugars, do not promote tooth decay.
6. Unlike table sugar, sugar alcohols are poorly absorbed by the small intestine. They do not raise blood glucose levels nearly as high as the equivalent amount of sugar would. This is why sugar alcohols are often used by people with diabetes.
7. Mal-absorbed by the small intestines, sugar alcohols are fermented by bacteria in the large intestine. As a result, some people experience bloating, gas, and even diarrhea when consuming sugar alcohols.
8. An exception to the above is erythritol. It actually is absorbed in the small intestine. However, it is unchanged in the body and is removed in urine. You’ll notice in the calorie table below that it has 0 calories.
9. From a regulatory perspective, sugar alcohols usually do not need to be labeled when present in a food item. Manufacturers that do want to indicate the amount of sugar alcohols present in a food, may do so in the Carbohydrates section. If the manufacturer claims that a product is “sugar-free” and the product contains sugar alcohols, this must be labeled.
10. Always read product ingredient labels, as sugar alcohols are sometimes used in conjunction with with artificial sweeteners to increase sweeteness.