What Are Sugar Alcohols — and Are They Safe?
Sugar alcohols are sweet organic chemical compounds commonly used as a sugar substitute. Because sugar alcohols don’t impact blood sugar in the same way regular sugar does, they can be beneficial to individuals who are looking to control their blood sugar levels. Sugar alcohols are often marketed as “low-carb” or “sugar-free.”
Here’s what you need to know about sugar alcohols — and whether these sugar substitutes are right for you.
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What is Sugar Alcohol?
“Sugar alcohols are sugar substitutes used as sweeteners in a variety of products, such as candy and gum,” says Natalie Allen, MS, RD, an instructor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University.
Technically, sugar alcohols are part of a group of short-chain carbohydrates known as fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols — a.k.a. FODMAPs. (Sugar alcohols are part of the “P” — polyols.)
To spot sugar alcohols on a nutrition label, look at the end of each ingredient. : If you see an “itol” at the end of it, that means it’s a sugar alcohol, says Michele Promaulayko, creator of Sugar Free 3. “This isn’t a great name for them since they’re neither sugar nor alcohol,” she says. “They are, however, chemically processed artificial sweeteners, so they’re a no-go on the program.”
They may be found in “sugar-free” versions of foods like candy, chewing gum, cookies, pudding, diet sodas, and other sweets. Sugar alcohols may also be used in food products for texture and moisture (and to prevent browning during cooking).
Types of Sugar Alcohols
Sugar alcohols include:
- Erythritol (in sweeteners like Truvia)
What is the Difference Between Sugar and Sugar Alcohols?
Sugar alcohols “provide fewer calories than regular sugar, and the metabolism is a little different,” Allen explains. While sugar typically gets completely absorbed in your small intestine, sugar alcohols are incompletely absorbed there.
Because the body doesn’t absorb sugar alcohol in the same way it metabolizes sugar, Allen says, sugar alcohols provide fewer calories than regular sugar. One sugar alcohol in particular, erythritol, contains no calories, because it’s excreted into the urine and doesn’t impact blood glucose and insulin levels.
For example, a teaspoon of granulated sugar has 16 calories. The same amount of xylitol powder contains roughly half the amount of calories, and a teaspoon of Truvia (erythritol) contains zero calories.
Are Sugar Alcohols Bad for You?
“It is certainly okay to eat sugar alcohols, but don’t overdo it,” Allen says.
Because sugar alcohols are not completely digested in the gut and not completely absorbed by your body — which is what makes them ultimately lower in calories than sugar — they can also cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea, Allen explains.
And for people with irritable bowel syndrome, FODMAPs in general have been associated with long-term gastrointestinal symptoms.
Research suggests that the side effects are more likely when are higher amounts are consumed.
Can You Eat Sugar Alcohols on a Sugar Free Diet?
It depends on the plan.
For individuals looking to consume less sugar and maintain better blood sugar control, sugar alcohols may help them achieve those goals. But some sugar-free diets recommend eliminating sugar alcohols.
Bottom line: Sugar alcohols aren’t sugar “freebies.” They should still be consumed in moderation, and it’s important to consider the potential GI side effects. If you’re trying to kickstart a sugar free lifestyle, you may find it’s best to cut out foods sweetened with sugar alcohol.