Are you confused by the term “sugar alcohol” on food labels?
You’re not alone.
Despite its name, sugar alcohol is neither sugar nor alcohol. It’s a type of carbohydrate that’s often used as a sweetener in processed foods.
But what exactly is it, and how does it affect your health?
In this article, we’ll explore the world of sugar alcohols and help you understand what to look for on food labels.
So grab a snack (maybe one with sugar alcohol?) and let’s dive in!
What Is Sugar Alcohol On Food Labels?
Sugar alcohol is a type of sweetener that’s commonly found in processed foods. It’s often used as a substitute for sugar because it has fewer calories and doesn’t cause cavities.
Despite its name, sugar alcohol is not actually a type of alcohol. Instead, it’s a type of carbohydrate that has a chemical structure similar to both sugar and alcohol.
Some common types of sugar alcohols include mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, erythritol, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates. You’ll often find these ingredients listed on food labels for products labeled “sugar-free” or “no sugar added.”
What Are Sugar Alcohols?
Sugar alcohols, also known as polyols, are a type of carbohydrate that are used as a low-calorie sweetener in many processed foods. They are often added to foods labeled “sugar-free” or “no sugar added” as a substitute for regular sugar.
While some sugar alcohols occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables, such as mannitol in pineapples and sorbitol in apples, most are produced industrially from other sugars like glucose. Commonly used sugar alcohols in the food industry include xylitol, erythritol, and maltitol.
Sugar alcohols are about 25-100% as sweet as regular sugar, but they have fewer calories and don’t have the same negative effects on dental health or blood sugar levels. They’re also considered low digestible carbs, meaning that they are not completely absorbed by the small intestine and instead travel to the large intestine where they are fermented by bacteria.
While sugar alcohols do contain some calories, they are still considered to be low calorie sweeteners. When counting carbohydrates for products made with sugar alcohols, it’s recommended to subtract half of the grams of sugar alcohol listed on the food label.
Types Of Sugar Alcohols
There are several types of sugar alcohols that are commonly used in food production. Sorbitol, for example, is found naturally in some fruits and is typically manufactured from dextrose derived from cornstarch. It tastes about 60 percent as sweet as regular sugar.
Mannitol is another type of sugar alcohol that is naturally found in various plants, including strawberries, mushrooms, and onions. It can be made using fructose from cornstarch and has a sweetness level of approximately 60 percent that of regular sugar.
Maltitol is made using maltose from cornstarch and tastes around 75 percent as sweet as regular sugar. Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates are made from starch, with cornstarch being used most often. Their sweetness depends on their makeup, but the range is about 20 to 50 percent that of regular sugar.
Erythritol is unique because the manufacturing process involves fermentation. It’s produced from cornstarch and tastes about 70 percent as sweet as regular sugar. Xylitol can be made from a few different materials, including birch wood, corncobs, and leftover sugar cane stalks. It’s just about as sweet as regular sugar and also has a cooling, minty taste.
Isomalt is made from sugar but only tastes around 55 percent as sweet. Lactitol is made from whey and tastes about 35 percent as sweet as regular sugar.
Each type of sugar alcohol has its own unique properties and sweetness level. Food manufacturers often use a combination of these sugar alcohols to achieve the desired level of sweetness in their products. It’s important to note that while sugar alcohols have benefits over regular sugar, they can still cause digestive issues in some people if consumed in large amounts. It’s always best to consume them in moderation and pay attention to how your body reacts.
How Do Sugar Alcohols Affect Your Body?
While sugar alcohols are a healthier alternative to regular sugar, they still have an impact on your body. When consumed, sugar alcohols are not fully absorbed by the body and are instead fermented by bacteria in the small intestine. This can cause gastrointestinal discomfort, including gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
Additionally, while sugar alcohols have fewer calories and carbohydrates than sugar, they still contain 2 calories per gram. This means that consuming too much of them can lead to weight gain.
However, sugar alcohols do have some benefits. They don’t cause cavities like regular sugar does and they have a minimal impact on insulin levels, making them safe for people with diabetes to consume in moderation.
It’s important to note that not all sugar alcohols are created equal. Erythritol has the least impact on blood sugar levels, while maltitol and sorbitol can have a laxative effect if consumed in large amounts.
When incorporating foods with sugar alcohols into your diet, it’s important to read food labels and consume them in moderation to avoid any negative side effects.
Benefits Of Sugar Alcohols
There are several benefits associated with consuming sugar alcohols. One significant advantage is that they contain fewer calories than regular sugar. While sugar has about 4 calories per gram, sugar alcohols typically have just over two. This means that you can enjoy foods that are sweetened with sugar alcohols without consuming as many calories.
Another benefit of sugar alcohols is that they have a lower glycemic index than regular sugar. This means that they don’t cause sudden spikes in blood sugar levels, making them a good option for people with diabetes or those trying to manage their blood sugar levels.
Sugar alcohols also don’t contribute to tooth decay like regular sugar does. In fact, some types of sugar alcohols, such as xylitol, can actually inhibit bacterial growth in the mouth and promote better oral health.
Finally, if you’re on a low-carb diet, you can still enjoy foods sweetened with sugar alcohols. They have a lower glycemic index and are much lower in carbs than regular forms of sugar.
Drawbacks Of Sugar Alcohols
While sugar alcohols may seem like a healthier alternative to sugar, there are some drawbacks to consider. One of the main concerns is their impact on the gastrointestinal system. Since sugar alcohols are not digested in the same way as sugar, they can cause indigestion and unpleasant side effects such as gas, bloating, and diarrhea. This is because they are fermented by small intestine bacteria, which can lead to digestive issues.
Furthermore, while sugar alcohols are lower in calories and carbohydrates than sugar, they still contain 2 calories per gram. This means that consuming too much of them can still lead to weight gain. Additionally, some sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol and mannitol, can have a laxative effect if consumed in large amounts. This is why food packaging containing these ingredients must come with a warning.
For those who follow a low FODMAP diet or have irritable bowel syndrome or other similar GI conditions, it’s important to avoid sugar alcohols altogether. This is because they contain a sugar alcohol called polyol, which is high in FODMAPs and can cause digestive issues.
Foods That Contain Sugar Alcohols
Sugar alcohols are commonly found in a variety of foods, including hard candy, chewing gum, baked goods, ice cream, and mouthwash. They’re also frequently used in lower-calorie and sugar-free foods like energy bars, pudding, frosting, cakes, cookies, candies, and jams.
You may also find sugar alcohols in products labeled “low-carb” or “diabetic-friendly.” These products often contain sugar alcohols as a way to provide sweetness without raising blood sugar levels.
It’s important to note that while sugar alcohols have fewer calories than regular sugar, they still contain carbohydrates and can affect blood sugar levels. When counting carbohydrates for products made with sugar alcohols, it’s recommended to subtract half of the grams of sugar alcohol listed on the food label.