Nutrition Articles

What Are Sugar Alcohols?

What You Need to Know

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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.

Why Use Sugar Alcohols?
You may wonder why manufacturers would put sugar alcohols in foods and other products, or why people might seek them out. Here are a few reasons why consumers choose these products:
  • Fewer calories. Sugar alcohols contain fewer calories (0.2 to 3 calories per gram) than sugar (4 calories per gram), making them a diet-friendly choice for people who want to limit their caloric intake, but still enjoy sweet foods.
  • Safe for diabetics. Sugar alcohols are absorbed more slowly (and incompletely) by the body. Unlike regular sugar, they require little or no insulin for metabolism. *People with diabetes should consult their physician, dietitian or other health professional about incorporating sugar alcohols into their daily meal plans.
  • Better dental health. Sugar alcohols do not promote tooth decay since they are not metabolized by the bacteria that produce dental cavities.
  • Fewer drug interactions. Sugar alcohols do not react with the pharmacologic ingredients in medicines as much as sugar sometimes can.
  • Individual tastes. The different types of sugar alcohols vary in sweetness, from being about half as sweet to equally sweet as sugar.
In addition to consumer desires, sugar alcohols appeal to manufacturers too. Here's why:
  • Sugar alcohols do not lose their sweetness when heated, although many artificial sweeteners do.
  • Sugar alcohols do not absorb water like sugar does. Therefore the surface of foods made with sugar alcohols won't become sticky as quickly as products made with sugar.
  • Molds and bacteria do not grow and multiply on sugar alcohols as well as they do on sugar.
  • They can use a combination of sugar alcohols, sugar and/or artificial sweeteners to give the most pleasant taste, appearance, and texture to a food product.
Are Sugar Alcohols Safe?
Sugar alcohols have been used for years. After careful review, scientists have concluded that they are safe for human consumption. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies some sugar alcohols as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) and others are approved as food additives.

For some people, consuming certain sugar alcohols in excessive amounts may cause gastrointestinal upsets such as gas, bloating and diarrhea. Whether or not you will experience problems will depend on your individual sensitivity level and the other foods you consume at the same time. It is best to find your individual tolerance level when using these food ingredients, and to avoid them if they cause discomfort.

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Member Comments

  • I am an optimist.
    It does not seem too much use being anything else.
    - Winston Churchill
  • TWIGGIE128
    I really want to stay away from all artificial sugar. I am addictive to the sweet taste of anything with sugar in it. If I have artificial sugar in candy or soda I believe it will trigger my sugar craving. Once triggered it takes a while to recover for me.
  • I def have a problem here..read my 1st blog..its short.
  • I can only eat one kind of sugar-free candy (if I don't eat too much at one time) without getting the runs. I've only looked at the ingredients of that kind which has malitol. I wonder if the others have several types of sugar alcohols.
  • Does anyone else have this problem? Sugar alcohol or anything with sugar alcohol makes me very nauseated and sick. I have tried different items, when I start to feel the nausea, I look at the ingredients and always have an issue with the sugar alcohol. I am unable to consume anything with sugar alcohol, anyone else experience this? Thanks
  • I find the sugar alcohol gives me intestnal problems. Splenda is the only artifical sweetener that doesn't give me problems even though I have about 8 ounces of ice tea with equal once a day. My doctor doesn't recommend any artifical sweeteners, He feels small amount of regular sugar and watching the carbs is better.
  • TONWEN
    "For some people, consuming certain sugar alcohols in excessive amounts may cause gastrointestinal upsets such as gas, bloating and diarrhea."

    Well, if you consider eating 2 pieces of candy that contain sugar alcohols to be excessive, ok. Any time I have ever tried sugar alcohols, I get sick. It doesn't matter how small a serving of whatever the food that I am eating is. Everyone I know who has tried sugar alcohols have had the same reaction. I can hardly say that my exposure to the effects of sugar alcohol is representative of people in general, but I would caution anyone trying them for the first time to try VERY limited amounts.
  • SGTCEDAR
    I can use Equal but Spenda and similar products make me sick. I get diarrhea but that could be related to having a history of ulcerative colitis.
  • A couple of years ago I was extremely sick. After a lot of testing it was determined I am allergic to these sweeteners. Splenda and Equal are no problem for me.
  • AZURE-SKY
    A while back I decided to try some of the name-brand chocolate candies that are sugar-free. They contain sugar alcohols. The result? gas, bloating, diarrhea - and I only ate a couple of pieces.

    If you're interested in what sugar alcohols really are, google. Here's one explanation. Choose for yourself.

    http://www.ynhh
    .org/about-us
    /sugar_alcohol.aspx
  • I use them sometimes. And for those people who say they're poisonous to dogs, so is your diet! You may NOT feed a dog people food and expect it to be okay. Ask any vet. This is unacceptable. And the same goes for cats. The human diet is poisonous to cats as well. These animals are not us. Do not give them any of your food, feed them food that is formulated for them. Their dietary needs are unique to their respective species.
  • ENDLESSUMMER21
    I a diabetic have been for about 14 years and became insulin dependent about 3 years ago. These alcohol sugars that are spoken of and touted as being "generally safe for human consumption" explains NOTHING!!! What are they? Where EXACTLY are they derived from.? What chemical processes did they go through to reach their "consumable" state? What chemicals are present in them because they are obviously NOT natural? As an insulin dependent diabetic, I am of course very aware and careful about the foods I eat. I basically follow a modified Paleo-Diet and it really seems to help with maintaining a healthier blood sugar level. I try not to use any artificial anything in my cooking and that includes any pre-packaged foods (which I rarely purchase and when I do, they are very few and far between)and I only use regular table sugar or honey to sweeten whatever the recipe may call for. As a general rule though, I hardly add sugar or honey to anything though. I find other natural methods of adding sweetness (and hopefully a few nutrients as well) by using fruits as garnishments and cooked as glazes, using the fruits' natural juices as the actual glaze itself with chunks of fruits for texture interest, fiber and nutrients. Alcohol sugars...no thank you! Sticking to the natural stuff has made me a healthier me. I'd rather have a very small amount, basically a taste, maybe a tablespoon or two of whatever the treat made with real sugar may be rather than have a lot of the treat made with artificial sweeteners a.k.a. alcohol sugars, and fill my system with chemicals. Think people, think! Don't just eat what is fed to you. Take charge and eat what you KNOW is good.
  • STILLSTRUGGLIN
    "Generally Recognized as Safe" means "We Don't Want You to Know". I only use Stevia and was shocked to hear my Diabetes Educator explain that Splenda is worse for you than Sweet N Low!

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.