BY NOW YOU’VE MOST LIKELY SEEN “SUGAR ALCOHOLS” CREEP UP ON THE NUTRITION LABEL OF SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE FOOD ITEMS. AND IF YOU’RE LIKE ME, YOU PROBABLY HAVE A FEW QUESTIONS ABOUT THE REASON “WHY” THEY’VE BEEN ADDED TO SAID FOODS AND WHETHER THEY’RE “GOOD, “BAD,” OR WILL GIVE YOU A BUZZ.
READ ON FOR A SHOT OF SHORT AND SWEET INFORMATION DETAILING ALL THINGS SUGAR ALCOHOLS!
WHAT ARE SUGAR ALCOHOLS?
Sugar alcohols are not “sugars” and don’t contain ethanol (alcohol). Technically called “polyols,” sugar alcohols are unique compounds typically produced from the glucose (sugar) found in cornstarch. They’re also naturally found in some fruits and vegetables.
WHY ARE THEY ADDED TO FOODS?
Sugar alcohols are added during processing for several reasons:
- They increase the volume of food
- They enhance the taste and texture of food
- They effect the cooling temperature and prevent browning of food
- They reduce the total number of calories a food provides
WHERE CAN I FIND SUGAR ALCOHOLS?
Sugar alcohols can be found in a variety of foods. They’re most often found in foods that contain “sugar-free” or “no sugar added” on the label. Popular examples include:
- Baked goods
- Ice cream
- Sports nutrition supplements
HOW CAN I SPOT A SUGAR ALCOHOL ON A FOOD LABEL?
Below is a list of common names to look for on the nutrition label of your favorite food:
- Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
Note: The most commonly used sugar alcohols are bolded.
DO SUGAR ALCOHOLS PROVIDE CALORIES?
But they provide significantly fewer calories per gram compared to sugar. One gram of sugar provides four calories per gram whereas the same amount of a sugar alcohol may provide between one and three calories (depending on the sugar alcohol).
Sugar alcohols provide fewer calories than traditional sugar because they’re poorly digested. Less than 80 percent are absorbed in the small intestine.
DO SUGAR ALCOHOLS IMPACT BLOOD GLUCOSE LEVELS?
Unlike traditional sugar, which has a profound impact on blood glucose levels, most sugar alcohols have a negligible impact because they’re poorly digested and absorbed. In fact, erythritol and mannitol have literally no impact. The one exception to this statement, however, is maltitol, which has a substantial impact.
CAN YOU EAT TOO MANY?
Since sugar alcohols are poorly digested, there’s an increased risk for stomach discomfort, diarrhea, and feeling bloated when consumed in large amounts. This is why you may feel bloated or uncomfortable after eating a protein bar – many have over 5 grams of sugar alcohols to enhance taste and texture at less calorie cost.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends consuming no more than 50 grams per day to minimize the risk of stomach discomfort, bloat, and diarrhea. And they recommend no more than 20 grams per day from mannitol because it’s handled exceptionally poorly by the body.
WILL SUGAR ALCOHOLS HELP ME LOSE WEIGHT?
When seeking weight loss, many people believe choosing foods that replace traditional sugar with sugar alcohols is the way to go. But the impact of this decision isn’t nearly as big as you may think. A gram of a sugar alcohol may provide fewer calories per gram compared to traditional sugar, yet, your body can only handle so much, which means the difference is limited by how much your body can comfortably tolerate.
For instance, let’s assume you choose a food that uses a sugar alcohol that provides two calories per gram. If we estimate the best-case scenario that you can tolerate 50 grams per day, you may have just saved 100 calories in total.
4 calories/gram (sugar) X 50 grams = 200 calories
2 calories/gram (sugar alcohol) X 50 grams = 100 calories
200 calories (sugar) – 100 calories (sugar alcohol) = 100 calories
Yet, simultaneously, you’ve spent more money and likely felt uncomfortable for a large portion of the day because of poor digestion.
Is it worth it?
WHY DO FOODS WITH SUGAR ALCOHOLS COST MORE THAN THOSE USING TRADITIONAL SUGAR?
Many foods that contain sugar alcohols cost more than those that are made with traditional sugar for two major reasons. First, since sugar alcohols are derived from sugar, the production process increases costs. Secondly, because sugar alcohols are 25 – 90 percent as sweet as traditional sugar, manufacturers need to add even more to achieve the desired level of sweetness. Needing to add more of an ingredient that costs more to produce ultimately increases the cost of the finished product.
There’s no exciting, or industry-changing takeaway here. Like most foods and aspects of life, moderation is key. Sugar alcohols can serve as a replacement to traditional sugars to enhance taste, texture, and consistency of foods while providing fewer calories. This makes them appealing if you’re watching your calories, or seeking a food that will have a negligible effect on your blood glucose levels. However, more is not necessarily better, and may even prove to be disadvantageous as the side effects from eating large amounts can be significantly uncomfortable.