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What Are Sugar Alcohols?

What You Need to Know

-- By Becky Hand, Licensed & Registered Dietitian
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If you spend any time looking at nutrition labels, you’ve probably noticed some intriguing ingredients in sweet foods that are touted as diet-friendly, sugar-free, low-carb, or even formulated for people with diabetes. One ingredient, known as sugar alcohol, is a special type of sugar replacement that is frequently found in soft drinks, gums, cookies, and sugar-free candy. Ever wonder what sugar alcohol is doing in these supposedly healthy foods? You're not alone!

What Are Sugar Alcohols?
The term “sugar alcohol” is very misleading. Sugar alcohols get their name from their unique chemical structure, which resembles both sugar and alcohol. But they're neither sugars nor alcohols. In fact, sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate that sweetens foods, but with half the calories of sugar. There are several specific types of sugar alcohols (usually ending with the letters "-ol"). When reading a food label, the following ingredients are actually sugar alcohols:
  • Erythritol
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
  • Isomalt
  • Lactitol
  • Maltitol
  • Mannitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol
Look familiar? You'll find sugar alcohols in a wide variety of foods (gums, pancake syrups, candies, ice creams, baked goods, and fruit spreads), health and beauty products (toothpastes, mouthwashes and breath mints), and even medicines (cough syrups, cough drops and throat lozenges). In the near future they may be found in pie fillings, cake frostings, canned fruit, beverages, yogurt and tabletop sweeteners.
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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.

Member Comments

  • LINDAH42
    WARNING--xylitol (don't know about other sugar alcohols) is HIGHLY toxic to dogs. See just one of many articles about this at:
    I was at the vet with my dog when a woman brought in her dog that had just eaten gum and got the bad news that her dog wasn't going to make it. PLEASE let people know about this risk. - 8/1/2013 12:52:50 PM
  • I would like to know how sugar alcohols are made, what are they made of. Are they totally artificial? I just really hate the idea of more chemicals. - 8/1/2013 10:21:43 AM
  • I was an out of control diabetic... so I'm grateful to find sugar alcohols in my food VS the toxic chemicals of splenda (which I used to use), saccharin, Equal, etc.etc.etc.) (artificial sweeteners).....T
    hanks for this exellent article- which also enlightened me in more ways than one...
    Now I use sugar alcohols, stevia, or xylitol. Have Agave, but haven't tried it yet - 2/27/2013 9:08:47 AM
    When I first started the Paleo way of eating, I needed recipes to guide me. So I googled 'Paleo Recipes', and found this book.

    I was kind of leery at first, not really knowing if I was going to get a really good cookbook, or a collection of recipes with weird ingredients that I would never use. Much to my surprise, I got an excellent cookbook that I use all the time. Such great recipes as Moroccan Chicken, Salmon Fish Cakes, Omelet Muffins, BBQ Grilled Lamb Kebobs, just to name a few that I've tried & loved. Simply put, if you're going to ditch the SAD diet & get back to a more natural way of eating, then the 'Paleo Recipe Book' is a must have!

    check this out:
    com/paleorec - 10/27/2012 6:09:00 PM
  • Generally recognized as safe? Something else to check, I guess. - 10/27/2012 9:58:14 AM
  • if counting carbs do you deduct the sugar alcohols from the item total carb count?? i have just started the first phase and dont want to mess it up. tyring to stay under 30 a day. bought new bars Atkins endulge Chocolate coconut bars says only 3 net carbs but has totsl carbs on back 19 minus the 9 fiber 1 regular sugar and 8 sugar alcohols...anybod
    y know if they dont count? - 10/26/2012 11:54:34 AM
  • I like xylitol, i use it for baking and a bit in tea in the evening. The "gastric" thing actually works great for me as I usually have the other way problem of not feeling the need to go for #2 for days. Works like a charm :) - 9/18/2012 11:34:24 AM
    Be careful with sugar alcohols because gastric distress is a COMMON problem. I can handle them in small doses (usually 10 mg/serving or less.) Much more than that, and my gut feels like it's going to explode! The problem is eating out because very few restaurants list sugar alcohols in their food, or can even tell you if they use them at all. - 8/2/2012 8:30:47 PM
  • In our diabetes class, the dietician said to count sugar alchohols as 1/2 carb but I wasn't really sure what sugar alcohols were so I really appreciated this article! I guess you really have to try them to determine how each one affects you personally. - 8/2/2012 8:40:25 AM
  • Thanks for the info. Bought some protein bars that have 2g sugar, then checked the back and they also had 7g sugar alcohols which accounted for most of the carbs. So basically lower calorie sweetener that doesn't cause a rise in blood sugar levels. Sounds acceptable to me - 7/9/2012 3:02:50 PM
  • Now it makes sense why these sugar free candies are causing me gut main; darn isomalt; and I only ate one serving. Why are you so sensitive gi o' mine? - 6/13/2012 4:30:35 PM
  • Thanks very much for this article. I went to Trader Joe's today and bought one protein bar because I could finally understand all the ingredients on the back of the label and there was no sugar (apparently), but I did notice the words "Sugar Alcohol" so I looked it up. I had no idea what they were and now I do. I'm eating a bar by "thinkThin" and it is delicious. It has "Maltitol" but that's the only "ol" word. Thank you - 5/29/2012 4:53:09 PM
  • 1102MEG
    I haven't found one of these -ol sugars that I tolerate. So, I am always looking for food products with splenda instead of sorbitol. Any suggestions would be great! I am pre-diabetic. thanks! - 2/24/2012 1:20:08 PM
  • XYLITOL IS TOXIC TO DOGS!!!! It can be deadly in even smallish doses. Just saying, for those of us who share with four footed babies or whose babies might 'get into' stuff. I personally love xylitol, but never send stuff baked with it to homes with dogs. - 8/4/2011 6:58:49 AM
  • In general, I think the 'sugar alcohols' are a good thing. If you are a dark chocolate lover, you might notice that they permit the flavor of the chocolate to come through much more clearly and fully. Yum! - 10/29/2010 8:07:02 PM