If you’re following a low-carb diet or simply trying to avoid sugar, you’ve definitely come across ingredients in processed foods called “sugar alcohols”. Though they’re a common inclusion in many sugar-free items, the term “sugar alcohol” itself often causes some confusion. Many people wonder some of the following questions… Do sugar alcohols have side effects? Are they natural or man-made? Are they safe for everyday use?
In this article, we’re going to explain the answer to, “What is sugar alcohol, anyway?”, along with the question, “Is sugar alcohol bad?” We’ll also outline potential side effects and warnings, and show you how the substances compare to other common sweeteners, both natural and artificial. Read on to learn more…
What Is Sugar Alcohol?
If you look at a food label under Total Carbohydrates, you’ll see the amount of Total Sugars, and under that, you may see a line that says Sugar Alcohols, with the amount listed in grams. Since sugar alcohols aren’t classified as “added sugars”, they get their own line on product labels – which also means they’ll have less of an impact on your waistline.
Why is this? It’s because when it comes to net carbs (which people on low-carb diets carefully monitor), sugar alcohols essentially don’t count. Those on low-carb or keto diets that track their net carbs get to subtract the sugar alcohols and the fiber from the total carb count, since they don’t contribute to their daily carbohydrate limit. This is because they won’t impact the body’s ability to stay in ketosis, or a fat-burning state.
But, what are sugar alcohols, anyway?
Sugar alcohols (or polyols) are neither “sugar” nor “alcohol”, yet their chemical structure resembles both of them in some way. Instead, they can be viewed as low-calorie sugar alternatives. Though they’re typically viewed as “more natural” than artificial sweeteners since they’re derived from plant-based sources, they’re also highly-processed and handled in lab settings. Basically, a lot has to be done to get them into the form that goes into packaged foods.
Here is how sugar alcohols differ from sugar, artificial sweeteners and other more natural sources of sugar…
Sugar Alcohol vs. Sugar
The big draw to use sugar alcohols is that they contain less calories than regular sugar sources, (about half to one-third less). This breaks down to about 1.5 to 3 calories per gram for sugar alcohols, versus 4 calories per gram for sugar. However, most also do contain carbohydrates and have a small effect on blood glucose levels.
In contrast, artificial sweeteners don’t contain carbohydrates or calories, therefore don’t cause any rise in blood sugar – but they also aren’t at all natural. Artificial sweeteners are completely lab-created and chemically-based.
Different Types of Artificial Sweeteners
There are many different types of sugar alcohols, all with slightly different characteristics and potential side effects. They also all have different effects on blood sugar levels, based on their glycemic index (GI) value. The higher the GI value of the sugar alcohol, the higher of a blood sugar spike you will get when you consume that sweetener.
We’ll outline where different sugar alcohols fall on the glycemic index scale in comparison to other sources of sugar and artificial sweeteners further down in the article; First, let’s talk a little bit about the most popular types of sugar alcohols that you’ll find in common products…
Erythritol – Potentially the most popular of the sugar alcohols, erythritol has zero calories and carbs. This sugar alcohol is one of the main ingredients in the popular sweetener, Truvia, along with Stevia — and it’s about 60 to 80 percent of the sweetness of table sugar. It’s derived from corn sugar.
Xylitol – This sugar alcohol is not completely calorie-free, but it’s still 40 percent lower in calories than regular table sugar – with 10 calories per teaspoon compared to 16 per teaspoon. You can find this sugar alcohol in many products, including many sugar-free chewing gums and toothpastes, as some studies show it can help protect against tooth decay. Although it’s typically lab-produced, it can also be found naturally from the bark of the birch tree.
Mannitol – This sugar alcohol is created in a lab by a process called sugar hydrogenation, which involves manipulating fructose from corn. It has 50 to 70 percent of the sweetness of sugar, but it’s also a sugar alcohol that can frequently cause side effects in people, which we’ll discuss next.
Sorbitol – Next, this sugar alcohol can be made from fruits, GMO corn or seaweed, but most often it’s produced from gluten-free cornstarch. It’s also another sugar alcohol that can frequently cause side effects – often because it tastes less sweet than sugar, therefore people use too much of it.
Sugar Alcohol Side Effects
The main reason that people use sugar alcohols is because they’re a zero-to-low calorie substitute to sugar, that is more natural than artificial sweeteners (yet still highly-processed). For this reason, they’re popular for people who’re trying to lose weight, cut down on sugar, or follow a low-carb diet. Yet, what makes them low-calorie is also the reason they can potentially cause side effects, namely digestive.
This is because sugar alcohols are highly indigestible – basically, your body can’t break them down to absorb them like it can with regular sugar and other foods. Therefore, this can contribute to some gut imbalance along with digestive side effects when consumed in excess.
What are the side effects of too much sugar alcohols? With overuse of these substances (especially mannitol and sorbitol), some people experience nausea, gas, bloating and diarrhea.
A good way to avoid any discomfort is to stick to the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics recommendations for daily consumption of the two sugar alcohols that frequently cause the most digestive issues…
Mannitol – No more than 20g a day
Sorbitol – No more than 50g a day
In addition, remember that although sugar alcohols typically cause less of a blood sugar spike after consumption, they still have some effect on blood sugar. And some sugar alcohols (such as one called maltitol) should be avoided completely by diabetics, due to its high glycemic index score…
Glycemic Index Score (GI) of Sugar Alcohols
The following list of sugar sources (regular, natural, artificial and sugar alcohols) show where they fall on the GI scale – which determines how they will affect your blood sugar. The higher the score, the higher the potential to cause blood sugar spikes, so choose carefully and wisely!
Idea for 310 Graphic: Create something 310 branded in a table that shows the below… (otherwise we need to include this line at the bottom of it: List provided by TheHealthyHomeEconomist.com.)
GI Index of Sweeteners from Lowest to Highest
*Sugar alcohols are in bold
Date Syrup and Sugar 20
Brown Rice Syrup 25
Coconut Sugar/Coconut Nectar 30
Raw Honey 35-58
Organic Sugar 47
Maple Syrup (Grade A or B) 54
Blackstrap Molasses 54
Evaporated Cane Juice 55
Raw Sugar (Turbinado) 65
Corn Syrup 75
White Sugar 80
High Fructose Corn Syrup 87
List provided by TheHealthyHomeEconomist.com
The above list shows that when you choose a diet shake, (or any other product), you need to check the ingredient label and make sure that if it contains sugar alcohols, they aren’t ones that will spike your blood sugar too high. In general, all sugar alcohols should be used with caution, since they aren’t as low-impact calorie-wise, or safe as natural plant-based sweetener, Stevia.
Finally, remember that all sugar alcohols (and especially mannitol and sorbitol) may cause digestive issues with overuse, so only consume them in moderation!