Learn about the trending sugar alternatives and their effects on health.  

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If you have a sweet tooth and you’re also looking to reduce sugar in your diet, you may find yourself picking up snacks that contain an ingredient commonly listed as “sugar alcohol.” Here, we look at what a sugar alcohol is, the potential health benefits and risks, and the common types of sugar alcohols found in our food.

According to the CDC, over 34 million Americans are living with diabetes and another 88 million have pre-diabetes. In addition, it is estimated that almost 50% of Americans have tried to lose weight at some point in the last 12 months. With so many people looking to reduce sugar in their diets, it is no surprise that the use of low- or no-calorie sweeteners are on the rise.

Whether you’ve just been diagnosed with diabetes or you’re simply looking for a low-sugar version of a sweet treat, chances are you’ve tried a product that contains sugar alcohol.

What is a sugar alcohol?

Sugar alcohol is neither a sugar nor an alcoholic beverage. It is a type of low- or no-calorie sweetener derived from sugar that became widely used in the food industry in the 1990s.

While sugar alcohols can be found naturally in some fruits and vegetables, most often sugar alcohols are industrially created using chemical modification.

Sugar alcohols have become more prevalent in packaged foods with the re-emergence of low-carb diets and the current popularity of the keto diet. They are typically found in foods like candy, gum, frosting, and other low or reduced calorie treats.

Are sugar alcohols good for you?

There are both health benefits and health concerns when it comes to sugar alcohols.

On the positive side, sugar alcohols contain less calories per gram than sugar. For those looking to satisfy a craving for sweets without the sugar, or for diabetics looking to reduce blood sugar spikes, sugar alcohols can provide a way to reduce sugar consumption and potentially decrease caloric intake.

Sugar alcohols are not calorie or carbohydrate free, so they can have an impact on blood sugar. But research indicates that since sugar alcohols are incompletely absorbed into the body, they result in a lower change in blood sugar than one would have with refined sugar. For this reason, sugar alcohols are generally thought of as suitable for diabetics to consume in moderation.

Another interesting benefit is that most sugar alcohols do not contribute to tooth decay. Since they do not ferment in the mouth like refined sugar does, they do not cause cavities. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that some sugar alcohols, most notably xylitol, can be used to prevent and treat tooth decay. For these reasons, sugar alcohols are often found in products like toothpaste and mouthwash to provide sweetness without the negative oral hygiene effects of sugar.

Even with their many benefits, sugar alcohols do have some negatives. They can cause gastrointestinal distress such as bloating, diarrhea, and flatulence, especially if eaten in large quantities. Studies indicate that they may be a contributing factor to irritable bowel syndrome and they are not recommended for individuals with celiac disease.

Types of sugar alcohols

Sugar alcohols are usually found in commercially processed foods, so you won’t typically find these items on the grocery store shelves. With the exception of two forms, sugar alcohols can be easily identified by looking for the “-itol” suffix on an ingredient list. Here, we review the six most common forms of sugar alcohol.

Erythritol

If you’ve purchased certain types of monk fruit sweetener, you may have seen this sugar alcohol also listed as an ingredient. According to Lakanto, a brand of monk fruit sweetener, erythritol is commonly included with monk fruit extract to balance the sweetness. Monk fruit extract is so sweet—up to 250 times sweeter than sugar—and erythritol is approximately 70% as sweet as sugar, so the two are combined to balance each other.

Erythritol occurs naturally in some fruit and fermented foods and is made commercially through glucose fermentation with yeast. It has 95% less calories than sugar, does not create a spike in blood sugar, and doesn’t cause tooth decay.

Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates (HSH)

Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates (HSH) are mixtures of sugar alcohols. HSH does not crystalize, so it is often used in commercial food production as a sweetener, rehydration agent, and additive since it inhibits the formation of crystals in products like syrup.

Isomalt

If you’ve watched baking competitions on television lately, chances are you’ve heard of or seen the use of isomalt. This sugar alcohol can be heated and shaped since it does not crystalize, making it an excellent sugar alcohol for sugar-free candies and for sugar sculpture.

Isomalt is approximately 50% as sweet as sugar. Due to its mild sweetness, it goes well with many flavors. It does not brown, does not create a cooling sensation in the mouth like some other sugar alcohols, and does not cause changes to blood sugar.

Mannitol

Due to its cool sweet taste, mannitol is most often used in the production of chewing gum. It is commonly found in diabetic foods and is lower in calories than sugar. It is also used as a commercial food additive to help increase shelf life of processed foods.

In addition to its uses in food, mannitol is also used in medications. It is utilized to reduce pressure in the eyes in the as a treatment for glaucoma, can be used to treat renal failure and is used in treating severe brain injuries and diseases.

Sorbitol

Sorbitol is approximately 60% as sweet as sugar and can be found naturally in fruit and dried fruit. Most often it is made from corn syrup and is used as a sugar substitute in packaged foods. Unlike many other sugar alcohols, sorbitol can contribute to tooth decay.

Like mannitol, sorbitol is also used in making medications and is also used as a laxative. Further, it is used as a thickener and to preserve moisture in cosmetics.

Those with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance should avoid sorbitol as they typically have issues with absorption, exacerbating the gastrointestinal symptoms that are common with over-ingesting sugar alcohols.

Xylitol

Xylitol is a sweetener found in small amounts in fruits and vegetables, but is most commonly produced for commercial use. It is as sweet as sugar, yet has 33% fewer calories, is absorbed at a slower rate, and does not create insulin spikes.

Xylitol is noted for its oral hygiene benefits. Studies have found that xylitol not only may prevent cavities, but that it also proves helpful in the repair of tooth enamel through remineralization. Xylitol has been found to be beneficial in the prevention and treatment of sinusitis and ear infections and is often used as an additive in sinus rinse and nasal sprays.

Of note: While xylitol is not considered toxic to humans, it is often fatal if consumed by dogs.

The bottom line

Like most things, it is important to enjoy sugar alcohols in moderation. Don’t over-do it. It is a good idea to introduce any new food product into your system slowly, to reduce the chance of any negative effects.

Julie Floyd Jones is an Atlanta, Georgia based Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist, Certified Personal Trainer, and Certified Yoga Instructor. Julie is the Program Director for Excellence in Exercise, where she works with corporate partners to provide wellness solutions for employees globally. She is the founder of Training & Champagning Curated Wellness Retreats and Thrive.