Have you ever picked up a nutrition label and seen the term “sugar alcohol” listed under the carbohydrate section?
It’s a common ingredient in many processed foods, but what exactly does it mean?
Despite its name, sugar alcohol is neither sugar nor alcohol. It’s a type of reduced-calorie sweetener that’s often used as a substitute for regular sugar.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what sugar alcohol is, how it’s used in food products, and its potential impact on your health.
So, let’s dive in and explore the world of sugar alcohols!
What Does Sugar Alcohol Mean On A Nutrition Label?
When you see “sugar alcohol” on a nutrition label, it refers to a type of carbohydrate that’s commonly used as a sweetener in processed foods. Sugar alcohols are often added to foods labeled as “sugar-free” or “no sugar added” to provide sweetness without the added calories of regular sugar.
It’s important to note that sugar alcohols are not completely calorie-free. While they do contain fewer calories than regular sugar, they still contribute to your overall calorie intake. Additionally, some sugar alcohols can have a laxative effect if consumed in large amounts, so it’s important to be mindful of your intake.
When counting carbohydrates for products that contain sugar alcohols, it’s recommended to subtract half of the grams of sugar alcohol listed on the food label. This is because sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed by the body and have a lower impact on blood sugar levels than regular sugar.
What Is Sugar Alcohol?
Sugar alcohol is a type of carbohydrate that’s commonly used as a sweetener in processed foods. Despite its name, sugar alcohol is neither sugar nor alcohol. It’s a hybrid of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules, which gives it a chemical structure that’s similar to both.
Some sugar alcohols occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, while others are produced industrially from other sugars, such as the glucose in cornstarch. Common types of sugar alcohols include mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, isomalt, and maltitol.
Sugar alcohols are about 25-100% as sweet as regular sugar, but they’re lower in calories and don’t have the same negative effects on dental health or blood sugar levels. They’re considered low-digestible carbs, which means that they’re not completely absorbed by the body and instead travel to the large intestine where they’re fermented by bacteria.
While sugar alcohols are often added to processed foods as a low-calorie sweetener, it’s important to be mindful of their consumption. Some people may experience digestive issues if they consume too much sugar alcohol, and it’s important to count them towards your overall carbohydrate intake when monitoring your diet.
How Is Sugar Alcohol Used In Food Products?
Sugar alcohols are commonly used in processed foods as a sweetener to provide a similar taste to regular sugar without the added calories. They are often combined with artificial sweeteners to create a sweeter taste. Sugar alcohols are found in a variety of foods, including energy bars, ice cream, pudding, frosting, cakes, cookies, candies, and jams. They are also used in sugar-free gum and mouthwash due to their ability to not cause cavities.
Some sugar alcohols occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables, while others are man-made and added to processed foods. The most common sugar alcohols found in food products include sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt, maltitol, lactitol, xylitol, and erythritol. These sugar alcohols are often listed on the ingredient list with an “-ol” at the end of their names.
Sugar alcohols are also used as bulking agents that can substitute sugar in a 1:1 ratio and eliminate the improper taste of intense sweeteners. They offer several advantages such as lower caloric value, comparable sweetness to sucrose, and a low glycemic index. Additionally, they exhibit prebiotic and anti-caries effects which make them useful in sugar-reduced foods and tooth-friendly products.
Types Of Sugar Alcohols
There are several types of sugar alcohols commonly used in processed foods. Here are some of the most common ones:
1. Sorbitol: Sorbitol occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, including apples, pears, and peaches. It’s commonly used in sugar-free gum and candy.
2. Xylitol: Xylitol is also found naturally in fruits and vegetables, but it’s often produced commercially from corn cobs or birch trees. It’s commonly used in sugar-free gum, mints, and toothpaste.
3. Mannitol: Mannitol occurs naturally in seaweed and mushrooms, but it’s often produced commercially from corn syrup. It’s commonly used in sugar-free candy and chewing gum.
4. Isomalt: Isomalt is a synthetic sugar alcohol made from sucrose. It’s commonly used in sugar-free hard candy and lollipops.
5. Maltitol: Maltitol is a synthetic sugar alcohol made from maltose, a type of sugar found in grains like barley and wheat. It’s commonly used in sugar-free chocolate and baked goods.
6. Lactitol: Lactitol is a synthetic sugar alcohol made from lactose, a type of sugar found in milk. It’s commonly used in sugar-free ice cream and chocolate.
7. Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates: Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH) are a group of synthetic sugar alcohols made from corn starch. They’re commonly used in sugar-free candy and baked goods.
It’s important to note that different types of sugar alcohols have different levels of sweetness and may have different effects on the body. Some people may also have an intolerance to certain types of sugar alcohols, so it’s important to pay attention to how your body reacts to them.
Potential Health Benefits Of Sugar Alcohols
Sugar alcohols have been found to have some potential health benefits. One of the most notable benefits is that they can be a helpful tool for weight management. Since sugar alcohols have fewer calories per gram than regular sugar, they can help reduce overall calorie intake without sacrificing sweetness. This can be particularly helpful for individuals who are trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
Additionally, sugar alcohols can be beneficial for individuals with diabetes or those looking to control their blood sugar levels. While sugar alcohols do have an impact on blood sugar, they are not fully absorbed by the body and therefore have a lower glycemic index than regular sugar. This means that they cause a slower and less significant rise in blood sugar levels.
Another potential benefit of sugar alcohols is their impact on oral health. Unlike regular sugar, which can contribute to tooth decay, sugar alcohols are not fermented by bacteria in the mouth and do not cause cavities. In fact, some sugar alcohols like xylitol have been found to have a protective effect on teeth and can even help prevent and treat tooth decay.
Potential Side Effects Of Consuming Sugar Alcohols
While sugar alcohols are generally considered safe to consume, there are potential side effects that you should be aware of. One of the most common side effects is digestive upset, including bloating, gas, and diarrhea. This is because sugar alcohols are incompletely digested and absorbed by the body, which can cause fermentation in the intestines and lead to discomfort.
Different types of sugar alcohols can have varying levels of digestive impact. For example, xylitol has been shown to cause bloating, gas, upset stomach, and diarrhea in some people when consumed in excessive amounts. Erythritol, on the other hand, appears to have milder effects on the stomach and is less likely to cause digestive upset.
It’s also worth noting that some people may be more sensitive to sugar alcohols than others. If you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), for example, sugar alcohols may be one type of short-chain carbohydrate that could provoke symptoms. In this case, a low-FODMAP diet may help control gastrointestinal symptoms.
To avoid potential side effects when consuming sugar alcohols, it’s important to use caution and not overdo it. The American Diabetes Association recommends consuming sugar alcohols in moderation and not in excess quantities. The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics advises against consuming more than 50 grams/day of sorbitol or more than 20 grams/day of mannitol to limit chances of experiencing diarrhea. Additionally, if you notice digestive upset after consuming foods with sugar alcohols, it may be best to find another sweetener option or limit your intake.
How To Incorporate Sugar Alcohols Into A Healthy Diet
If you’re looking to incorporate sugar alcohols into your diet, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, it’s important to choose products that are labeled as “sugar-free” or “no sugar added” to ensure that the sweetener used is a sugar alcohol and not regular sugar.
Second, be mindful of your overall intake of sugar alcohols. While they may be lower in calories than regular sugar, they can still contribute to your overall calorie intake and some can have a laxative effect if consumed in excess. Aim for no more than 10-15 grams of sugar alcohol per day.
Third, pay attention to how your body reacts to sugar alcohols. Some people may experience digestive discomfort or bloating when consuming large amounts of sugar alcohols. If you notice any negative side effects, it may be best to limit your intake or avoid them altogether.
Finally, remember that sugar alcohols are not a magic solution for weight loss or blood sugar control. They can be a helpful tool in moderation, but it’s important to focus on a balanced diet that includes plenty of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any significant changes to your diet.