What You Need to Know About Sugar Alcohols

You go to the grocery store and read some food labels and notice sugar alcohols listed as part of the ingredients. It doesn’t mean it is sugar, nor does it mean it is alcohol. So yes, the name is a bit misleading. Or maybe you’ve heard of the big craze with labels that read “sugar free” or “no sugar added”. Instead they use sugar alcohols which are a form of carbohydrate that add some sweetness to foods and are added to your favorite ice creams, cookies, gum, chocolates and countless other food items in your local grocery store.

The most common sugar alcohols you will see and hear about are:

•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

As noted, the term “sugar alcohol” can be very misleading. And keep in mind, there is no alcohol in this sugar substitute, so take a deep breath – you will not be getting tipsy! Despite the name, there is no sugar in sugar alcohols either. The name originates from their chemical structures, which are similar to the chemical structures of both alcohol and sugar. Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate that is used to sweeten foods, but have half the calories of sugar.

Sugar alcohols originate from various plant products, such as fruits and vegetables. Each type of sugar alcohol will vary in sweetness, ranging from 25% to 100% + the sweetness of real sugar; also dependent on the food that it is being used in. The carbohydrates contained in these plant products is then altered through a chemical process, which then leads to the production of the sugar alcohols you are familiar with and found on food labels.

Sugar alcohols are a known type of carbohydrate named “polyols”. Part of the chemical structure of sugar alcohols resembles sugar, and another part resembles alcohol. But sugar alcohols are carbohydrates your body does not completely absorb, but are still classified as a type of carbohydrate, as they will affect blood glucose levels to a certain degree; varying for each person – a spike in blood sugar levels for some, while no spike at all in others. When you view a food label, you will find that the sugar alcohol will be accounted for in the total carbohydrates column under the Nutritional Facts.

Sugar alcohols are similar to sugar, but in fact your body will not absorb them completely. As a result, your blood sugar levels may be impacted very little or not at all. This is great for people who are on low carbohydrate diets or those who are diabetic. But it’s also important to note that all sugar alcohols don’t behave the same exact way.

Sugar alcohols do contain some calories; roughly 2 calories per gram depending on which specific sugar alcohol we are talking about (where sugar itself contains 4 calories per gram). This is due to the fact that sugar alcohols are converted into glucose more slowly, which is how your body metabolizes them. And because your body does not absorb sugar alcohols completely, like fiber they simply pass through your body. But because they are absorbed differently than sugar in the body, gas and bloating are side affects you may experience if too much is consumed.

Sugar alcohols are great for satisfying your sweet tooth, as well as helping you manage your waist line and reach your low carb diet goals. Just be sure not to overeat, as you do not want to gain any extra unwanted pounds and to avoid gastrointestinal distress. So yes they contain fewer calories, are safe for diabetics, and you’ll even have a greater smile! How so? Well because sugar alcohols are not metabolized by the bacteria that cause tooth decay, visits to the dentist won’t be so frightening anymore. Another added bonus! Eat these foods in moderation, while continuing with an overall healthy diet.  

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