What are sugar alcohols?
Despite their name, sugar alcohols aren’t sugar and they aren’t alcohol. They are naturally occurring sugar substitutes that have about half the calories of sugar. They get their name because they are carbohydrates that have a chemical structure similar to sugar and to alcohol. Sugar alcohols are also referred to as polyols.
Sugar alcohols are found in many foods, including chewing gum, ice cream, puddings, baked goods and chocolate. They may be used in place of sugar or in combination with a sugar substitute. Sugar alcohols not only add a mild sweet flavor, but they also add the same bulk and texture to foods that sugar provides.
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 as sweet as sugar
How do I find sugar alcohols on a Nutrition Facts Label?
Sugar alcohols are easy to spot because they end in “-tol.” If a food is labeled as “sugar free,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires the specific sugar alcohol used in the food to be listed. However, if more than 1 is used in the food, the FDA requires the term “sugar alcohols” to be used.
Are sugar alcohols safe?
The FDA has determined that sugar alcohols are safe for people to consume. However, you should consume them in moderation. Sugar alcohols are slowly absorbed by your body, so eating excessive amounts of sugar alcohols can lead to bloating and diarrhea. According to the American Dietetic Association, consuming more than 50 grams of sorbitol or 20 grams of mannitol per day can cause diarrhea. The FDA requires foods and drinks that contain sorbitol or mannitol to include a warning label describing this laxative effect.
Benefits of Sugar Alcohols
- Do not contribute to tooth decay
- Have less of an effect on blood glucose than does sugar
How do sugar alcohols affect glucose levels?
Sugar alcohols do have an effect on blood glucose levels, but less so than sugar. If a food has fewer than 5 grams of sugar alcohol per serving, it will likely have a very small effect on your blood glucose level. However, if a food has more than 5 grams of sugar alcohol per serving, the American Diabetes Association recommends the following tips to help you determine how many carbohydrates from a serving to count in your meal plan:
- Subtract half the grams of sugar alcohol from the total carbohydrates.
- Use the remaining grams of carbohydrate in your meal plan.
See a list of resources used in the development of this information.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff