Sugar alcohols are found in many foods, including candy, chewing gum and baked goods. Despite their name, sugar alcohols are neither sugar nor alcohol. Although they are sweet, they do not affect blood sugar like table sugar (sucrose). Foods containing sugar alcohols are usually referred to as “sugar-free,” “no added sugar,” “low carbohydrate,” or ” keto-friendly.” Maltitol, xylitol and sorbitol are examples of sugar alcohols you may see on an ingredient label. Erythritol is often considered the healthiest sugar alcohol because it has the least impact on blood sugar levels. But every sweetener has pros and cons. We reveal everything you need to know about the different types of sugar alcohols.
What are sugar alcohols? Definition
Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate called “polyols.” Part of their chemical structure resembles sugar and part resembles alcohol. Although the word “alcohol” is part of their name, sugar alcohols do not cause intoxication.
Some of these sweeteners occur naturally in plants, including berries and other fruits, and are extracted directly from plants. However, most sugar alcohols are made from sugar and starch through a chemical process. Food manufacturers use them to add sweetness and texture to products such as chewing gum, candy and baked goods.
List of sugar alcohols
There are several different types of sugar alcohols. To find out if your food contains sugar alcohols, check the nutrition facts label. The sugar alcohol family includes:
Maltitol has 75 percent of the sweetness of sugar. The sweetener is commonly used in hard candies, chewing gum, ice cream, chocolate-flavored desserts and energy bars because of its appealing taste and texture.
Erythritol / Erythritol
Erythritol occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables such as grapes, pears, melons, mushrooms and certain fermented foods. It is the sugar alcohol that has the least effect on blood sugar levels. For this reason, this sweetener is used by many people on low-carbohydrate or low-sugar diets.
Sorbitol / Sorbit
Sorbitol is made from corn syrup, but also occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables. It is commonly used to make sugar-free chewing gum and candy, but can cause stomach upset or diarrhea. For this reason, foods containing sorbitol must carry a warning stating, “Excessive consumption may have a laxative effect.”
This tooth-friendly sweetener is resistant to crystallization, so it is sometimes used to make hard candies, cough drops or taffy. However, some consumers claim it causes bloating and other stomach problems.
Xylitol / Xylitol
This sweetener occurs naturally in plums, strawberries, cauliflower and pumpkin. Xylitol is commonly listed as an ingredient in chewing gum, mints, and dental care products such as toothpaste and mouthwash.
Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH).
These are mixtures of several sugar alcohols and are usually obtained by the partially produced hydrolysis of corn starch. Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates are commonly used in mouthwashes and baked goods. Estimates vary as to their relative sweetness. Some say they are only 33 percent as sweet as sugar, while others estimate them to be up to 90 percent.
Mannitol is made from marine algae , but can also be found naturally in fruits and vegetables, including pineapples, olives, asparagus, sweet potatoes and carrots. Mannitol can be difficult to digest and can sometimes cause bloating and diarrhea. For this reason, foods with mannitol must contain a warning label stating, “Excessive consumption may have a laxative effect.”
Pay attention to total carbohydrate amount
It is a common misconception that sugar alcohols have no effect on blood sugar. Although they have fewer calories than sugar, most of them are not as sweet. As a result, you have to use more of them to achieve the same sweetness. However, it can be difficult to calculate the optimal amount.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food manufacturers can voluntarily list the amount of sugar alcohols on the label under “total carbohydrate content.” However, food manufacturers are required to list sugar alcohols in the nutrition label if a statement such as “sugar-free” or “no added sugar” is used to describe the food.
Health experts-especially those who counsel diabetics-recommend checking the total amount of carbohydrates in any food, even if it is labeled “sugar-free” or “no added sugar.” The total amount of carbohydrates in foods affects glucose levels.
Consuming sugar alcohols can affect your blood sugar levels. When watching your carbohydrate intake, always check the nutrition facts label to see how many total grams of carbohydrates you are consuming – even if a food is labeled sugar-free or low-sugar.
The table below compares different sugar alcohols by glycemic index (GI) and calories per gram (cal/g). Note that the glycemic index is a range rather than a fixed number, and different studies give different results.
|Hydrogenated starch hydrolysate||33%||39||2.8|
Benefits of sugar alcohols
Eating sweet treats and other foods with less sugar and sugar alcohols may offer potential health benefits.
Reduced sugar absorption
Sugar alcohols are not fully absorbed by the body. As a result, the effect of sugar alcohols on blood sugar levels is generally less than that of sugar, and they provide fewer calories per gram. For people trying to reduce their sugar intake , foods with sugar alcohols can be a smart first step to switch to healthier foods with natural sweetness (such as fresh or frozen fruit). Of all the sugar alcohols, erythritol has the least impact on blood sugar.
Improved dental health
Sugar alcohols do not promote tooth decay like sugar does. They also go very well with mint and are therefore often used to sweeten chewing gum, toothpaste and other dental products. Xylitol actually inhibits bacterial growth in the mouth and freshens breath.
Can help cut calories
If you’re on a low-carb, low-calorie diet, sugar alcohols are a good alternative. They contain far fewer calories than classic sugar. In 100 g erythritol, for example, there are only 20 kcal. So you can also drink your coffee without a guilty conscience.
Possible side effects
Consider some of the possible drawbacks and side effects before making a decision about adding sugar alcohols to your diet.
Sugar alcohols are incompletely digested and absorbed, so they cause stomach problems for many people. They can ferment in the intestines and cause bloating and diarrhea. Compared to other sugar alcohols, erythritol is less likely to have such a negative effect on the gastrointestinal tract. However, people react differently to different sugar alcohols. That is why a separate test is recommended. One serving of sugar alcohols should not cause much discomfort, but some people have problems with some low carb desserts.
Foods labeled “sugar-free” or “no sugar added” are often overindulged. But these still end up on the waistline and offer little to no nutritional value.
Health experts generally recommend that we consume foods in their natural form – or as close as possible. For example, a whole apple provides less sugar and more fiber than a glass of apple juice or applesauce sweetened with added sugar or a low-calorie sweetener. Most foods containing sugar alcohols are processed and may not provide the nutritional benefits (such as vitamins, minerals or fiber) needed for optimal health.
Dangerous for dogs
In large quantities, xylitol can be dangerous for dogs. The sweetener produces a rapid insulin release that can lead to life-threatening liver problems or hypoglycemia. The low blood sugar can cause loss of coordination, depression, collapse and seizures in as little as 30 minutes after ingestion. If you have a dog at home, keep xylitol-containing foods or dental care products out of your pet’s reach.
Cooking and baking with sugar alcohols.
Sugar alcohols in general have long been used extensively in food manufacturing. However, you can also use these products at home. Most of them are already quite easily available in stores. Thanks to low carb and keto diets, they have now gained a lot of popularity.
You can buy sweeteners like erythritol and xylitol in granulated or powdered form to use for baking sweet treats. However, since these products are not as sweet as sugar, they usually need to be combined with another sweetener to achieve the desired effect.
It’s best to experiment with the sweetener and the recipe you choose. You might also notice a difference in the texture of baked goods, although sugar alcohols are usually better for adding texture than artificial sweeteners. In baking, you can use erythritol in almost the same way as table sugar.
Online, there are already plenty of recipes for cheesecakes, muffins, chocolate cakes, cookies and the like sweetened with erythritol that might give you some inspiration. Keep in mind the erythritol-to-sugar ratio: use 1.2 to 1.4 times the amount (so 200 grams of sugar equals 240-280 grams of erythritol).
If your recipe is for a beverage, sweet sauce or glaze, you may find that sugar alcohols don’t dissolve well. In fact, some cooks complain of a grainy texture when using erythritol in liquids. So keep this in mind when cooking.
Finally, using sugar alcohols can slightly change the flavor of your food. Follow the product directions and take some time to experiment in the kitchen to find the right blend.