Sugar Alcohols – 10 Things You Need to Know

Sugar Alcohol Explained

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.

sugar alcohols sweetness comparison

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.

sugar alcohols calorie comparison

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.

sugar alcohols in nutrition label

10. Always read product ingredient labels, as sugar alcohols are sometimes used in conjunction with with artificial sweeteners to increase sweeteness.

  • Aria Gonzalez

    Interesting… given that the body does absorb some of them, would you say this kind of sweetener is better or worse than the zero calorie type? At least the body isn’t being completely tricked..

    • Honeybeeforeman

      At least they are natural. I have used xylitol in play of sugar in baked goods. I plus with it you get the added benefit of preventing tooth decay. Anything is better than the zero calorie artificial man-made sweeteners. I can’t believe they allow on the market. But truly only you can decide.

  • Utopia

    None of them taste good. They result in more sugar cravings, for me.

  • Alyssa

    I love spry xylitol candy…. it however, does not feel the same way about me.

  • John B

    Years and years ago when I tried to reduce carbs I tried some of those low carb candy bars made with glycerol. I actually found it to be too sweet. Of course, who knows what was also in that bar to make it so sweet. In any case, I didn’t really like it.

  • Legiope

    Since you advocate tracking the amount of sugar we consume, why does your app not allow us to track it? I signed up for “Pro” hoping I would be able to track my sugar intake but after spending the money found out the app doesn’t track sugar — only carbs.

    • Fooducate

      The reason is that there are many carbs that behave just like sugar does in the bloodstream. For example the carbs in white bread, or potatoes. However, this is a good suggestion for people who are interested specifically in sugar, and we will plan add sugar tracking in a future version of the app.

      • BLE

        +1 for tracking sugar intake in pro version