Sugar Substitutes | Sugar Alcohols


What are sugar alcohols?

Despite their name, sugar alcohols aren’t sugar and they aren’t alcohol. They are carbohydrates that occur naturally in certain fruits and can also be manufactured. They get their name because they have a chemical structure similar to sugar and to alcohol. Sugar alcohols are also called “polyols.”

Sugar alcohols provide sweetness and enhance the flavor of food without adding as many calories as sugar. Unlike sugar, they do not contribute to tooth decay.

What products contain sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols are found in many processed foods, including hard candies, ice cream, puddings, baked goods, and chocolate. They can also be found in chewing gum, toothpaste, and mouthwash. They may be used in combination with another sugar substitute.

The most common sugar alcohols found in foods include:

  • Erythritol – 0.2 calories per gram and 60% to 80% as sweet as sugar
  • Isomalt - 2 calories per gram and 45% to 65% as sweet as sugar
  • Lactitol – 2 calories per gram and 30% to 40% as sweet at sugar
  • Maltitol – 2.1 calories per gram and 90% as sweet as sugar
  • Mannitol – 1.6 calories per gram and 50% to 70% as sweet as sugar
  • Sorbitol – 2.6 calories per gram and 50% to 70% as sweet as sugar
  • Xylitol - 2.4 calories per gram and the same sweetness as sugar

By comparison, there are 4 calories per gram of sugar.

How do I find sugar alcohols on a Nutrition Facts Label?

If a food is labeled as “sugar free,” the amount of sugar alcohol (in grams) must be listed. If the food only contains 1 sugar alcohol, the name of that specific sugar alcohol is listed. Sugar alcohols are easy to spot on the label because most of them end in “tol.” If the food contains more than 1 sugar alcohol, the term “sugar alcohols” is listed.

How do sugar alcohols affect blood sugar levels?

Your body doesn’t completely absorb sugar alcohols, so they don’t affect your blood sugar levels as much as sugar and other carbohydrates do.

If you have diabetes, it is important to consider sugar alcohols when you are managing your blood sugar level. Check the Nutrition Facts Label on a processed food to find the amount of sugar alcohol per serving (listed in grams). If a food has fewer than 5 grams of sugar alcohol per serving, it will likely have a very small effect on your blood sugar level.

Are sugar alcohols safe?

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), sugar alcohols are “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). This means that qualified experts agree the available scientific evidence shows they are safe for use in foods and drinks. However, you should consume them in moderation. Because sugar alcohols aren’t completely absorbed by your body, eating large amounts can lead to bloating and diarrhea.

Written by editorial staff

Reviewed/Updated: 03/15
Created: 01/10