What Are Sugar Alcohols—And Should I Be Avoiding Them?

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If you read the label on many dessert items promoted as “healthier” for you than the real thing—say, a pint of low-calorie ice cream versus the full-fat, full-sugar kind—you’ll likely see a few ingredients that end in “ol.” That’s a tip-off that the product contains a sugar alcohol. (Xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol and maltitol are among the most common). But, what exactly are sugar alcohols, and are they any better for you than regular sugar?

Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that chemically have characteristics of both sugars and alcohols, according to the FDA (though it’s not the same type of alcohol found in booze). Most sugar alcohols are produced commercially and added to foods like dairy desserts, frostings, cookies, cakes, candy, and chewing gum, as a reduced-calorie sweetener.

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While they’re also naturally occurring (in small amounts) in some vegetables and fruits, like berries, the biggest source of sugar alcohols for most people is processed foods, says Suzanne Dixon, a registered and licensed dietitian and epidemiologist in Portland, Oregon.

“A lot of people think are calorie free, but they’re not,” says Dixon. They do, however, have fewer calories (1-3 per gram) than carbohydrates or protein (4 grams). While different kinds of sugar alcohols contain varying degrees of sweetness, they’re not as sweet as artificial sweeteners like aspartame (NutraSweet) or Splenda (sucralose).

It sounds like a lot of chemistry, but the major thing to know about sugar alcohols it that they don’t raise blood sugar in the same way that regular sugar (like glucose or sucrose) does, says Dixon. In fact, they first began popping up in packaged desserts labeled as “dietetic foods” in the 1970s, which essentially meant that some of the sugar in that particular item was replaced with sugar alcohols.

They can also improve the texture of foods, and interestingly, there’s also a lot of research showing the antibacterial benefits of xylitol and erythritol for oral health. For example, xylitol is often a key ingredient in toothpaste.

So why are they becoming more buzzy now? Dixon says its due to popular trends like the ketogenic diet or low-carb diet, which operate on the idea of preventing large fluctuations in your blood glucose—something sugar alcohols are great for. But growing interest in the FODMAP diet, which calls for eliminating certain carbohydrates that the small intestine doesn’t digest well, has also pointed to sugar alcohols as a culprit for digestive issues like bloating, gas and loose stools.

“Most RDs are kind of neutral on sugar alcohols,” says Dixon. “There’s no evidence they’re harmful to your GI tract or microbiome, but it’s unpleasant if you’re sensitive to them.”

The bottom line: If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable after snacking on a protein bar or devouring a pint of Halo Top after dinner, you might want to avoid products with sugar alcohols. People with known IBS should also try to steer clear, as they can make symptoms worse. The average healthy person is unlikely to be consuming large amounts of them, though, says Dixon, and as such, shouldn’t worry about them at all.

“If you’re reading a lot of labels to decide what to eat,” says Dixon, “you’re already eating the wrong things.”

Is Sugar Alcohol Bad for You?

Sugar Alcohols are Commonly Found in Protein Bars, Gums, Sodas and other Foods Considered, “Health Foods.“

Here’s a list of some popular sugar alcohols so you can identify them when you look at a nutrition label:

  • Erythritol
  • Maltitol
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
  • Isomalt
  • Lactitol
  • Mannitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol

The two major sugar alcohols found in protein bars and most low sugar foods are maltitol and erythritol. In this article we will explore maltitol and compare it with a natural form of sugar such as honey.

So what IS maltitol, exactly?

Maltitol is a sugar alcohol that has been artificially processed from starches like corn, essentially by hydrogenating (or adding hydrogen to) starches like corn starch. Companies us maltitol due to the sweetness – it has 75 – 90% of the sweetness of sucrose (table sugar) but half of the calories.

There’s just one problem with this: maltitol may not be the best thing for you to ingest. Even though it allows brands to sell a cheaper, lower-sugar bar, it could be worth it for you to spend the extra fifty cents on a bar that doesn’t contain the ingredient. Why is that?

Maltitol vs. Sugar


  • 4 calories per gram
  • Glycemic index of 60
  • 100 percent sweetness
  • Promotes cavitites


  • 2–3 calories per gram
  • Glycemic index of 52
  • 75 percent to 90 percent sweetness
  • May help prevent cavities

Like sugar, maltitol is a carbohydrate that contains calories. The body does not absorb all the calories in maltitol, but it still provides about 2 to 3 calories per gram, compared to four calories per gram of sugar. Since maltitol is a carbohydrate and has calories, it also affects blood glucose.

Maltitol syrup has a glycemic index of 52, which approaches that of table sugar at 60. The glycemic index is a measure of the effects of food on raising your blood glucose level. The powdered form has a glycemic index of 35, which is still higher than most other sugar alcohols and higher than all artificial sweeteners.

Harmful effects of Maltitol

  1. Indigestion and nausea

The reasons to be concerned about maltitol consumption mostly stem from the fact that maltitol can’t be fully digested in our bodies. That means that it starts to ferment in our gut, and this produces a number of negative effects. After eating maltitol, you might experience:

  1. Gas
  2. Bloating
  3. “Bubbleguts”
  4. Diarrhea
  5. Stomach pain
  6. Higher blood sugar

Foods that score higher on the glycemic index will cause more of a spike, meaning that people who have diabetes or are watching their blood sugar levels will need to monitor for this in foods, even foods that may claim they have a low net carb content.

  1. Weight gain

Weight gain can actually occur due to the glycemic index so even though you are thinking you are buying a bar with very low net carbs or low-to-no sugar, you might actually be doing your body harm.

Maltitol and your GI score—how does it work and why does it matter?

Chances are, if you’re diabetic, you’re familiar with the glycemic index, and if you aren’t, you’ve probably heard of it but may have never actually learned about it, even though it affects us all.

The glycemic index is basically a measurement of how different carbohydrates, like sugar, will affect your blood sugar levels.

Even non-diabetic folks will experience unpleasant effects from spikes in blood sugar levels. If you have a blood sugar spike, you could feel hungry again sooner, even though you just ate, and this can lead to weight gain from extra calories munched!

When calculating net carbs, many people will subtract fiber and sugar alcohols from the overall carb content. But maltito, like other sugar alcohols has a (relatively) higher glycemic index, meaning it actually SHOULDN’T be subtracted from the equation.

The glycemic index is designed so that glucose sugar in its pure form scores 100. Regular, processed table sugar (sucrose) comes in at 60. In its syrup form, maltitol scores right up there with processed sugar, at 52. That means that a lot of the negative effects you were trying to avoid by NOT eating sugar might still be there with maltitol. In its powdered form, it scores 35. On the flip side, a natural sweetener like honey is both low GI and provides added health benefits like antioxidants, b vitamins and sustained energy for athletic performance.

So what is the glycemic index of honey?

Honey is considered an added sugar and unlike low carb bars, it cannot be subtracted from overall carbohydrates to get a low “net carb” bar. Honey is significantly better than sugar and has an overall lower GI score than most sugar alcohols. Honey can be a good substitute for sugar even though generally, there’s no advantage to substituting honey for sugar in a diabetes eating plan. It has a GI index of roughly 62. It is still a sugar and should be treated as such.

There are many variances when it comes to honey depending upon how it is refined. Generally, darker honey has more healthy benefits and is of higher quality, especially if stored in a dark space in a glass jar. Honey contains fructose, glucose and water plus other sugars as well as trace enzymes, minerals, amino acids and a wide range of B vitamins. The amount of these micronutrients varies depending on where the honey comes from. In general, darker honeys contain more vitamins than lighter ones and also provide more trace minerals such as calcium, magnesium and potassium.

Unlike other sweeteners, honey has been widely touted in the sports nutrition arena for its benefits as a good carbohydrate for endurance athletes. One study has shown that honey is a good carbohydrate tor replenish muscles.

Three clinical trials were conducted with placebos that demonstrated honey as a superior carbohydrate option for athletic performance based on its low glycemic index, positive metabolic response, and effective energy production.

Natural organic clover honey is good for you and the environment

Each bar is lightly sweetened with organic clover honey not only because we think it tastes better, but it’s mother nature’s natural energy source. The wholesome ingredients used to create our delicious bars would not be possible without the help of the honey bees. We buy only organic clover honey that is better for you and better for honey bees. Organic clover honey is derived from clover plants. Honey is collected from the clover plants while they are in bloom. You might be asking yourselves now, what about the honey from a honeycomb and hive? Honey can in fact come from flowers.

Organic clover honey is sourced from the nectar of clover blossoms and hasn’t been processed, heated, or pasteurized at all. And it’s not only good for those enjoying it — it’s good for farmers, too. The clover from clover crops helps replenish nutrients into the soil that are ordinarily lost on other crops. Plus, the crop works well in a drought environment and helps prevent soil erosion — a win-win for everyone involved.


There are a lot of forms of sugar alcohols or sweeteners including ethryitol , sorbitol, sylitol and stevia marketed toward a diet culture that focuses on low carb or keto diets. While every person has different health goals, a real food approach focused on simple whole foods derived from mother nature is our M.O. at Real Food Bar.

By: Sue Cotey and Andrea Harris, RNs

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

If you have diabetes, you are likely a pro at reading food labels — checking carbohydrates is second nature. But what about products that use sugar alcohol as a sweetener?

This ingredient is increasingly popular in “diabetes-friendly” foods in the grocery store, but is it good for you? Here’s what you need to know.

Is it alcohol or sugar — or what?

Sugar alcohols, which occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, have a slightly deceptive name: They don’t contain either alcohol or sugar (though they sometimes come from different types of sugar).

Food manufacturers use the sweetener to reduce the amount of calories in a product while still providing sweetness. Unlike sugar, which has about 4 calories per gram, sugar alcohol has just over 2 calories per gram. You’ll often find it in baked goods and sugar-free gum.

Sugar alcohol converts to glucose more slowly than carbohydrates from things like honey, bread, rice and alcohol. It requires almost no insulin for metabolizing and doesn’t cause sudden blood sugar spikes.

Sounds good so far, but is there a catch?

Sugar alcohol is generally considered safe for consumption. There are, however, important things to keep in mind.

1. It’s not a good idea to binge on it. Even though labels on products sweetened with sugar alcohol say they are diabetes-friendly or sugar-free, they still contain carbohydrates.They can raise your blood sugar. And, you can also still gain weight when eating foods that contain sugar alcohol, especially if you eat them in excess.

2. It tends to have a laxative effect, particularly in children and people with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). Instead of being fully absorbed in the stomach, sugar alcohols can linger in the intestines and ferment. (Doctors actually prescribe some types of sugar alcohols as laxatives.)

3. Some types cause intestinal discomfort. In a 2006 British study, researchers gave participants doses of sugar or one of two types of sugar alcohol (xylitol and erythritol). Those taking xylitol reported bloating, gas, stomach upset and diarrhea. Erythritol appeared to have a milder effect on the stomach, only increasing nausea and gas when given in large doses.

How do you recognize sugar alcohols on food labels?

Just as sugar lurks behind different terms on food labels, sugar alcohol also has many names. When you see one of these products on a label, here’s what you are getting:

  • Xylitol, often used in gum, is about as sweet as sugar. It comes from wheat straw and some cereals and is commercially made from corncobs.
  • Maltitol is about 75 percent as sweet as sugar and comes from corn syrup.
  • Erythritol is 60 to 80 percent as sweet as sugar. It is found in things like pears, soy sauce and watermelon and is manufactured by fermenting corn.
  • Mannitol is 50 to 70 percent as sweet as sugar. It is found in carrots, olives and asparagus and is manufactured from seaweed.
  • Isomalt is about 45 to 65 percent as sweet as sugar. It comes from beet sugar.
  • Sorbitol is about half as sweet as sugar. It is found in apples and pears and is manufactured from corn syrup.
  • Lactitol provides about 40 percent the sweetness of sugar. Manufacturers make it from milk.
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates range between 40 and 90 percent as sweet as sugar. Manufacturers produce them by mixing different sugar alcohols.

As with most foods, it’s best to eat sugar alcohol only in moderation. However, if you are mindful of side effects, it can help reduce your carbohydrate intake when you eat it as part of a healthy diet.

Sugar alcohols are sweeteners that have about half the calories of regular sugar. They occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables, but some are man-made and are added to processed foods.

Many foods labeled “sugar free” or “no sugar added” have sugar alcohols in them. You might see these names on the ingredient list:

  • Erythritol
  • Maltitol
  • Mannitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH)
  • Isomalt

Food companies often combine sugar alcohols with artificial sweeteners to make foods taste sweeter. If you’re trying to lose weight, you might benefit from swapping sugar alcohols for sugar and other higher-calorie sweeteners.

Besides being lower in calories, sugar alcohols don’t cause cavities, which is why they’re used in sugar-free gum and mouthwash. Sugar alcohols also create a cooling sensation when used in large amounts, which works well with mint flavors.

You may see sugar alcohols as ingredients in many lower-calorie and sugar-free foods like energy bars, ice cream, pudding, frosting, cakes, cookies, candies, and jams. And in spite of their name, sugar alcohols aren’t alcoholic.

What Are Sugar Alcohols and Are They Healthy?

Photo: Giphy @foxadhd

Now that fat has reclaimed its place in the public’s heart as a necessary (and not-so-unhealthy) nutrient, sugar has taken on the role of public health enemy number one. Many people aim to cut back on the sweet stuff by opting for low-sugar or even sugar-free foods-lots of which still mysteriously have a sweet flavor. Hmm.

So how, exactly, do manufacturers create these products to satisfy a sweet tooth without actually skyrocketing the sugar content? One answer: sugar alcohols.

What are sugar alcohols anyway?

No, sugar alcohols don’t contain alcohol as you know it (aka ethanol, the compound that gets you tipsy), though they do have an oxygen-hydrogen bond like the liquid in your happy hour drink.

At the most basic level, sugar alcohols are naturally occurring carbohydrates, says Angela Lemond, R.D.N, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and founder of Lemond Nutrition. Some fruits naturally contain them, like stone fruits (think: peaches and plums) and blackberries, as well as sugar-free gum and candy, low-sugar protein bars, and “healthy” ice creams.

You’ll know a product contains a type of sugar alcohol by checking the ingredient list, says Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table. Take note if you spot words ending in an “-ol” (such as sorbitol, mannitol, erythritol, or xylitol), as that’s the sign of a sugar alcohol. While the actual grams of sugar may stay low for a product with these ingredients, the total number of carbs could still be high. (Here’s your guide to reading the newest nutrition labels.)

Manufacturers often use a chemically produced sugar alcohol as a lower-calorie sweetener, says Taub-Dix. Compared to regular sugar sources, they have about one-half to one-third the calories. Sugar alcohols often have 1.5 to three calories per gram, whereas regular sugar has about four. (Sugar alcohols do have more calories than your typically calorie-free artificial sweeteners.)

Are sugar alcohols safe to eat?

For some people, they could offer benefits-particularly for those with pre-diabetes or diabetes, or those keeping a close eye on sugar levels, says Lemond. Your body metabolizes sugar alcohols slower than regular sugar, she explains, so they don’t cause the same spike in insulin levels.

Foods sweetened with sugar alcohols are also a great choice if you’re craving something sweet but are watching your total calorie intake. Plus, if you’re concerned about oral health, you can enjoy a treat without worrying about your teeth, since sugar alcohol tends to cause less dental cavities, says Lemond.

Do sugar alcohols have any health downsides or side effects?

The major bummer about sugar alcohols is that they can cause some serious gastrointestinal discomfort. Depending on your stomach sensitivities, or if you simply overdid it one day, you might experience bloating, gas, and diarrhea, says Lemond. (Probably not the post-dessert feels you’re looking for.)

People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) should pay particular attention to sugar alcohols, explains Lemond. They contain high amounts of polyols (a type of carbohydrate), which people following a low-FODMAP diet-namely, IBS sufferers-can’t digest very well. In other words, hello, belly problems! (And, surprisingly, GI issues are super common in women.)

Both experts mention that the most important thing to know about sugar alcohols is how you feel after eating them. It’s a good idea to watch your sugar intake, and sugar alcohols could provide a healthy alternative-but portions sizes still matter. And if they send you to the bathroom or give you an instant food baby after a few bites, they’re probably not the best bet.

  • By By Mallory Creveling


Sugar alcohols or polyols, as they are also called, are sugar replacers and have a long history of use in a wide variety of foods. Recent technical advances have added to the range of sugar alcohols available for food use and expanded the applications of these sugar replacers in diet and health-oriented foods. They have been found useful in sugar-free and reduced-sugar products, in foods intended for individuals with diabetes, and most recently in new products developed for carbohydrate controlled eating plans.

Sugar alcohols are neither sugars nor alcohols. They are carbohydrates with a chemical structure that partially resembles sugar and partially resembles alcohol, but they don’t contain ethanol as alcoholic beverages do. They are incompletely absorbed and metabolized by the body, and consequently contribute fewer calories than most sugars. The commonly used sugar alcohols include sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, maltitol, maltitol syrup, lactitol, erythritol, isomalt and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates. Their calorie content ranges from zero to three calories per gram compared to four calories per gram for sucrose or other sugars. Most sugar alcohols are less sweet than sucrose; maltitol and xylitol are about as sweet as sucrose.

Sugar alcohols occur naturally in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but are commercially produced from other carbohydrates such as sucrose, glucose, and starch. Along with adding a sweet taste, polyols (sugar alcohols) perform a variety of functions such as adding bulk and texture, providing a cooling effect or taste, inhibiting the browning that occurs during heating and retaining moisture in foods. Polyols neither prevent nor cause browning.


The table below shows commonly used sugar alcohols along with some of their food applications. The relative sweetness value fluctuates due to the fact that sweetness will vary depending on the product in which the polyol is used. Manufacturers frequently use sugar alcohols in combination with other polyols and with nutritive (caloric) sweeteners to attain the desired taste and sweetness level.


Sugar alcohols are slowly and incompletely absorbed from the small intestine into the blood. Once absorbed they are converted to energy by processes that require little or no insulin. Some of the sugar alcohol is not absorbed into the blood. These pass through the small intestine and are fermented by bacteria in the large intestine. Thus, overconsumption may produce abdominal gas and discomfort in some individuals.(2) Total daily consumption should be considered since it is the total intake that may primarily drive GI disturbance or laxative effects. As a result, foods that contain certain sugar alcohols and that are likely to be eaten in amounts that could produce such an effect must bear the statement “Excess consumption may have a laxative effect.” The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics advises that greater than 50g/day of sorbitol or greater than 20g/day of mannitol “may cause diarrhea.”(1)

Given the increasing availability of polyolsweetened foods due to the expanded number of lowcarbohydrate foods, the total daily intake needs to be considered since it is the total intake that may primarily drive laxative effects. Other important factors to consider include the time of day consumed, the amount eaten in one sitting, type of food, individual response, and adaptation over time. Finally, if you eat a product containing large amounts of polyols for breakfast on an empty stomach, you will probably experience a different effect than consuming the same product later in the day with a fuller stomach.

Diabetic Diets
The primary goal for nutritional management of diabetes is to maintain near-normal blood glucose levels. Due to their incomplete absorption, the polyol sweeteners may be useful in diabetic diets. The American Diabetes Association notes that “the total amount of carbohydrate in meals or snack is more important than the source or type.”(3) People with diabetes should consult their physician, dietitian or other health professional about incorporating sugar alcohols into their daily meal plans.

An A publication recommends that persons with diabetes managing their blood sugars using the carbohydrate counting method “count half of the grams of sugar alcohol as carbohydrates since half of the sugar alcohol on average is digested.”(4)

Reduced Calorie and Low Carbohydrate Diets
Because of their lower energy density (calories per gram) the replacement of other carbohydrates with sugar alcohols can reduce the energy density of food products and could play a useful role in weight management. Polyols also may have a role in reducing the overall glycemic challenge of the diet. Presently, researchers have no conclusive evidence that glycemic index is related to weight control.(5)

Health experts advise that excessive energy intake in any form leads to weight gain. Consumers should consider the total calorie content of the diet and should avoid over consumption of all foods including those containing sugar alcohols.

Tooth Decay
Sugar alcohols are not acted upon by bacteria in the mouth, and therefore do not cause tooth decay.(2) Xylitol has been found to inhibit oral bacteria, and is often used in sugarless mints and chewing gums for this reason. The FDA authorizes the use of a health claim in food labeling that sugar alcohols do not promote tooth decay.


Consumers interested in the polyol content of foods can find relevant information in several places on the food label.

Ingredient List
The ingredient list will show the individual name of each polyol the product contains.

Nutrition Facts Panel
The Nutrition Facts panel shows the total carbohydrate content of a food that includes the amount of any sugar alcohols in the product. The manufacturer may also declare voluntarily the number of grams of polyols in a serving of the product. If the product label uses the terms “sugar free” or “no added sugar,” the polyol content must be declared separately under carbohydrates in the Nutrition Facts panel. If the product contains more than one polyol, the Nutrition Facts panel must use the term “sugar alcohol.”

Principal Display Panel
Consumers may see relatively new phrases such as “net carb,” “low carb,” or “impact carb” on the principal display panel of some products. These terms are not defined by the FDA. Generally, food manufacturers calculate “net carbohydrates” by subtracting the grams of fiber and sugar alcohols from the total carbohydrates.

Much like dietary fiber, even though sugar alcohols are technically carbohydrates, they have a lower energy density (calories per gram), because of their incomplete absorption and therefore, shouldn’t be counted as part of total carbohydrates.(6) This rationale is being debated in the scientific community.

The Bottom Line

An increasing variety of polyol-containing foods is appearing on supermarket shelves. Appropriately used, these products may have a role in weight management and in eating plans for people with diabetes. Long-term benefits have not been established for sugar alcohols and further research is needed to document their health effects. Sugar alcohols and foods containing them should be consumed as part of an overall healthy eating plan, such as that outlined by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The Sugar Alcohols
Type Calories per gram Approximate Sweetness
(sucrose =100%)
Typical Food Applications
Sorbitol 2.6 50 – 70% Sugar-free candies, chewing gums, frozen desserts and baked goods
Xylitol 2.4 100% Chewing gum, gum drops and hard candy, pharmaceuticals and oral health products, such as throat lozenges, cough syrups, children’s chewable multivitamins, toothpastes and mouthwashes; used in foods for special dietary purposes
Maltitol 2.1 75% Hard candies, chewing gum, chocolates, baked goods and ice cream
Isomalt 2.0 45 – 65% Candies, toffee, lollipops, fudge, wafers, cough drops, throat lozenges
Lactitol 2.0 30 – 40%

Chocolate, some baked goods (cookies and cakes), hard and soft candy and frozen dairy desserts

Mannitol 1.6 50 – 70% Dusting powder for chewing gum, ingredient in chocolate-flavored coating agents for ice cream and confections
Erythritol 0 – 0.2* 60 – 80% Bulk sweetener in low calorie foods
Starch Hydrolysates
3 25 – 50% Bulk sweetener in low calorie foods, provide sweetness, texture and bulk to a variety of sugarless products
* FDA accepts 0.2 kcal/g, but some other countries, such as Japan and the European Union, accept 0 kcal/g.

2. Wolever, T.M.S., et. al. Sugar alcohols and diabetes; a review. Canadian Journal of Diabetes 2002; 26:356.

4. Powers M. American Dietetic Association Guide to Eating Right When You Have Diabetes. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons; 2003:130,139

6. Marcason, W. What do “net carb,” “low carb,” and “impact carb” really mean on food labels? Journal of the American Dietetic Association. Jan. 2004.

For more information on sugars, fibers and other carbohydrates, please see our additional resources below:

The Science of Sugars: A four-part, peer-reviewed series examining many aspects of the relationships between sugars and health. The review also summarizes nutrition and policy recommendations of the scientific community. The referenced papers are now published in the peer-reviewed journal, Nutrition Today.

Background on Carbohydrates & Sugars

Questions and Answers about Sugars

Sugars: 10 Facts You May Not Know

Fast Facts about High Fructose Corn Syrup

Fiber Fact Sheet

Whole Grains Fact Sheet

Facts About Low-Calorie Sweeteners

Sweet Taste, Without the Calories

What’s the Scoop on Low-Calorie Sweeteners Video Series

Ask the Nutritionist: The Scoop on Sugar Alcohols

Q: What are sugar alcohols and how do they impact Net Carb count?

A: Many low-carb products are sweetened with a form of sugar called sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols come in the form of ingredients such as glycerin, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, erythritol, isomalt, lactitol and maltitol. Sugar alcohols provide a sweetness and mouth feel similar to sugar, without all the calories and unwanted metabolic effects. Sugar alcohols are not fully absorbed by the gut, which means they provide roughly half the calories that sugar does. Thanks to this incomplete and slower absorption, there is a minimal impact on blood sugar and insulin response. Because of this, sugar alcohols don’t significantly interfere with fat burning, which makes them acceptable on Atkins. However, since a portion of sugar alcohols aren’t fully absorbed in the gut, there is the potential that consuming too much may produce a laxative effect or cause some gastrointestinal problems. Most people can usually handle 20 to 30 grams a day. To calculate Net Carb count with sugar alcohols, simply subtract grams of sugar alcohols (including glycerin), as well as fiber, from total grams of carbs. Click here to learn more about what net carbs are and how to calculate them.

Sweeteners that have been around for centuries like sorghum syrup and maple syrup are a delicious way to satisfy your sweet tooth with a few health benefits too. But what about the new sweeteners we keep hearing about?

I probably get more questions about this category of sweeteners than any other sweetener out there and for good reason. They’re called sugar alcohols, but they’re not sugar, and they’re not alcohol.

You may have seen xylitol in your chewing gum or toothpaste and wondered, “Is that an artificial sweetener?”

You may have heard of an “-itol” that causes diarrhea and discounted it immediately, kind of like Olestra.

Or you may have heard praises sung by trusted nutrition sources and hoped that an “-itol” would be a good alternative sweetener without the calories.

Is Sugar Alcohol Bad For You?

I have to say, I think what amazes me most about this entire category of sweeteners is how prevalent they are, and yet how unquestioned. Many stevia blends have much more erythritol than stevia, yet people aren’t asking, “What’s that thing?” They’re just saying, “Is stevia safe?” because that’s the only sweetener listed on the FRONT of the package.

I’m not even sure if my antennae have been trained enough to catch all the “-itols” that might be buried in ingredients lists, as I’ve been so hyper-vigilant about completely artificial sweeteners.

How is a Sugar Alcohol Processed

There are a lot of choices in this category, all “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS as far as the FDA is concerned. What does that mean? No one has proven it harmful. Innocent until proven guilty it kills someone and they can prove it.

Here’s a list of what to watch for on labels:
  • sorbitol
  • xylitol
  • erythritol
  • mannitol
  • lactitol
  • isomalt
  • maltitol
  • hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH) – a family of sweeteners including hydrogenated glucose syrup, maltitol or sorbitol syrup

Sugar alcohols aren’t alcohol but have some chemical resemblances to it, and they often begin with a sugar but are also not sugar.

I keep trying to wrap my brain around exactly how these things are produced (clue number one that it’s not really food), and I just can’t do it. They all begin with some sort of natural starch or sugar (sometimes a chemical equivalent nowadays), then are fermented – some sources say hydrogenated or hydrolyzed – into a sugar alcohol. How this all plays out is beyond me…but let’s move on.

What are Sugar Alcohols Made From?

In case you’re wondering just what you’re eating, these are the initial sources for the “-ose” – the sugar/starch found in nature – from which the “-itols” are derived:

    • sorbitol, from glucose
    • xylitol, from xylan, in birch bark – likely any sweetener that has “birch bark” in its title is xylitol
    • erythritol, from corn
    • mannitol, from glucose syrups
    • lactitol, from lactose
    • isomalt, from sucrose

Benefits of Sugar Alcohols – Can They Be Healthy?

Similar to artificial sweeteners, the goal of sugar alcohols seems to be to reduce calories and glycemic load. Sugar alcohols are not calorie-free, but have 1/20 to 1/2 as many calories as sugar (from 0.2 to 2.7 calories per gram, compared to 4 calories in sucrose, table sugar). Sometimes they are listed as a “zero calorie sweetener,” though, so there must be a labeling loophole like the “zero grams trans fat” that allows manufacturers to list “zero” when it’s less than 0.5 g per serving.

They have fewer calories only because they’re not fully absorbed by the gut, passing on through without impacting the system. Or at least…without being absorbed. There’s something that doesn’t sit right with me about avoiding calories by eating things that are supposed to go right through you. Where’s the research on the safety there?

Whole corn goes right through most of the time, too (you know?), so does that mean it doesn’t contribute any calories to the meal? I just don’t know about that…

Unlike artificial sweeteners, which are usually 30-300 times sweeter than sugar, the sugar alcohols are less sweet than sugar, with 30-90% of the sweetness, depending on which one we’re talking about.

Almost all sugar alcohols are found naturally in some fruits (which fuels the labeling “all natural” even though they’re made in labs nowadays).

They do have an impact on insulin, but sugar alcohols require far less insulin response than other sweeteners, so they are lower on the glycemic index and often recommended for diabetics. It is important to note that some or most (?) DO incur an insulin response and are not “freebies.”

From a podcast by Pharmacist Ben (Ben Fuchs): xylitol will not touch insulin levels (although recent literature suggests that just the sweet taste of something may raise insulin). He calls it a “sweetener that’s like a nutritional supplement” and is a fan.

None of them negatively impact cavities and tooth decay, which gives them a leg up over other natural sweeteners and sugar.

A few sugar alcohols have particular benefits worth mentioning:

  • Xylitol may increase absorption of B-vitamins and calcium, re-mineralize tooth enamel and fight ear infections
  • Erythritol is often lauded as the best of the sugar alcohols – zero calories, zero glycemic effect, and it may even have an antioxidant effect.

Nutritional Profile & Glycemic Index of Sugar Alcohols

The nutrition facts for one teaspoon (4g) of a sugar alcohol:

Possible Disadvantages of Sugar Alcohols

They’re not pleasant.

Because sugar alcohols can (a) ferment in the intestines and (b) are not absorbed fully, thereby enacting “passive diffusion” in the colon; in larger amounts, they can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea, plus painful cramping in many individuals with just a small amount.

In that case, I feel like I wouldn’t recommend sugar alcohols to anyone who has any digestive weakness: IBS, Crohn’s, colitis, constipation, ETC., just in case. As a mom, I would include children on that list, too. It doesn’t seem worth it to experiment on them…

Sugar alcohols, although found in nature, have only been separated from their whole foods and used as sweeteners for a short time: erythritol was approved in 1990, for example.

Andy Bellatti, my favorite online dietician, admits that sugar alcohols are better than artificial sweeteners for those who need to avoid glycemic load, but he’s big on reminding people that we need to wean ourselves off the addiction to a sweet taste on our tongues, period:

Since they still add a lot of sweetness to foods, they do absolutely nothing in terms of helping our palates get used to lower amounts of sugar in our diets.

Award-winning cookbook author and nutrition expert Rebecca Wood puts xylitol in the category of artificial sweeteners and says this:

Xylitol is dangerous—even life-threatening—for pets according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Xylitol, a pure crystalline chemical, or hydrogenated polyol, is typically a byproduct of the plywood industry but it may also synthesized from cornstalks. Yes, data correlates xylitol with the reduction of dental caries, however there are more wholesome ways of preventing tooth decay.

And the Weston A. Price Foundation website, although not coming down on sugar alcohols as a non-food to be avoided at all costs (which surprised me), list the following side effects:

metabolic acidosis, which can lead to acid reflux and an increased risk of cancer of the larynx. …also promote dehydration and loss of electrolytes, creating feelings of excessive thirst. …Those who are trying to avoid carbohydrates and burn body fat should also know that sugar alcohols will immediately take the body out of ketosis, the state wherein fat reserves rather than dietary calories are being metabolized. . . assuming that the body was in a state of ketosis to begin with.

Additional concerns with sugar alcohols stem from the fact that they seem to increase the frequency of seizures in epileptics, and children are especially sensitive to the gastrointestinal side effects, possibly due to their propensity for bingeing on sweet foods. Children who regularly consume sugar alcohols also seem to have an increased incidence of childhood obesity.105

Erythritol Stands Out As The Best

Many sources seem to peg Erythritol as the safest, easiest to use sugar alcohol.

Erythritol is the easiest to digest, with up to 90% absorbed by the small intestine before it can enter the colon and cause digestive distress. It is heat stable so can be used for baking, and it’s a white powder that people can understand when they sub it for sugar.

Ben Fuchs, a pharmacist, deems xylitol the best sweetener for diabetics.

How to Use Sugar Alcohols

More than using them, it’s important to know where they’re already used in packages, if you ask me, especially if they give you pause as a class of sweeteners.

Erythritol, for example, is often blended with other natural (stevia) and artificial (aspartame) sweeteners and tends to be the main add-in in those stevia baking blends. You think you’re buying stevia, but you’re really buying erythritol enhanced with a little stevia, since it’s not as sweet as sugar.

Xylitol is equally as sweet as sugar, so you can use it with a 1:1 ratio. It is heat stable and can be used in baking. (But it’s more likely to cause gas/diarrhea/bloating.)

In packages, you’ll find it everywhere in toothpaste, “natural” or not, plus quite often in gum and medicines.

Baking with Sugar Alcohols

Buying a new alternative sweetener, whether it’s as simple as sucanat (which intimidated me for over a year!) or as complicated as stevia or sugar alcohols like erythritol or xylitol, can be a tricky foray into healthier food preparation.

It’s not quite like trying a new recipe or substituting whole wheat flour for white flour in your favorite healthy pumpkin muffins, you know? You’re really trying to incorporate a new ingredient into your old recipes, and all you want to do is figure out an easy substitution and roll with it.

You can purchase just plain erythritol and use it in baking – it’s 70% as sweet as sugar and heat stable, so technically you’d need to use a bit more than whatever sugar is called for in your recipe, or just accept less sweetness. I admit, I had a sample from NuNaturals and after a year of avoiding it because I wasn’t sure what to do with it, I gave it to my mother-in-law. I think for diabetics or anyone who is using an artificial sweetener regularly, erythritol is a better option.

However, I don’t think she knows what to do with it either. I think it’s just sitting on her counter (can’t say I blame her!).

NuNaturals also has a stevia baking blend which I did try in my trusty pumpkin muffin recipe. I’ve used a lot of sweeteners in that thing – white sugar, sucanat, honey, maple syrup, a bit of molasses – and it always tastes wonderful. This batch had a decided aftertaste which I can only compare to the cringe effect I get when I accidentally ingest artificial sweetener. (I’m not sure the blend I linked to was the one I tested out; perhaps they’ve updated the formula.) I gave away the rest of the tub to my sister-in-law, hoping she could get some use out of it.

What’s up with Stevia Blends?

If you shop the baking aisle at your local store, you’ll see plenty of products marketed as “stevia.” Almost all of them are going to be formulated to look like sugar and act like sugar. This means the companies (PepsiCo and CocaCola both have a brand name of “stevia”) have added quite a bit of bulk, since real stevia powder is 300 times as sweet as sugar and could never be subbed one-for-one.

Usually these blends – TruVia and PureVia are two that are neither True nor Pure – are mostly erythritol, sometimes dextrose (a corn sugar), sometimes other stuff. I do understand why the companies are trying to make blends that act like sugar. As I mentioned above, even someone like me who does plenty of experimenting in the kitchen doesn’t really know what to do with something that has too many “rules” to use it in my favorite recipes. However, it’s tricky labeling to emphasize only the stevia.

It’s really important to remember to read the backs of the labels – if you’re buying a blend, you need to understand that your research on safety must focus on all the ingredients, not just the stevia the company is trying to highlight.

ZSweet Review

I was listening to a great podcast from Sean at Underground Wellness (at least I hope I’m sourcing that right!), and he was sponsored by ZSweet – he’s big into the low carb movement, and discussed with his guest how awesome the stevia-based, zero-calorie sweetener was.

Naturally, I contacted them for a sample for the Sweet, Sweet Summer series.

When it came, I realized it was mostly erythritol with a little stevia.

That just goes to show you shouldn’t always listen to everything a random blogger says…

I was determined to try it anyway, since I don’t think erythritol is harmful. We tested it in yogurt and on strawberries, and I used the powdered version for a batch of my homemade frosting – side-by-side with regular white powdered sugar.

Here are my results and opinions:

In yogurt:

My husband likes the ZSweet packets better than the stevia white powder – no bitterness at all.

I thought they were (1) quite sweet and (2) starting feeling odd in my mouth after a while. There’s still something “artificial” feeling about it. It coated the spoon with a slippery, tacky film. I didn’t like the feel of my mouth afterward. ??? I would recommend it, of course, over any artificial sweetener, so if you have someone in your life who uses Nutrasweet or Splenda, for example, I’d try to talk them into switching, or if you absolutely cannot have sugar or even honey or maple syrup because of a medical condition, this seems like a great option to sweeten tea, coffee or yogurt. However, I’d still go with plain stevia extract as a top choice for both flavor and real food/health.

In frosting:

The powdered ZSweet “poofs” like a mushroom cloud. This was a bit disconcerting…

The frosting smells like a Smartie or something, very sweet, whereas the regular sugar version (of the frosting) smells like nothing.

ZSweet acted very differently than powdered sugar when stirring in the egg – crumbly – but once I added the sugar syrup, it all looked “about” the same.

On the taste: there’s something – maybe citrusy – that overwhelms the almond flavoring. People could still taste the almond, but I barely could. It explodes in the mouth with sweetness – MUCH more sweet than the regular sugar version of frosting. There’s something more tingly than the regular frosting – like if frosting is something creamy, this stuff is disintegrating or dissolving in your mouth.

Personally, I prefer the regular frosting MUCH more.

My mother-in-law didn’t notice the difference at all in a side-by-side taste test – maybe because her mouth is used to artificial sweeteners? Or just because.

My husband notices the difference and prefers the regular, but still likes the Zsweet, and my sister-in-law, who does use artificial sweeteners, said the same.

I discovered that the ZSweet frosting made my teeth hurt. That really bothered me at first and made me think it was totally unnatural, but then I realized that sometimes, eating plain dates also make my teeth hurt with the sweetness. (I really should get back to oil pulling…) I suppose this just goes to show that even though ZSweet is marketed as “zero calories, zero glycemic effect, zero worries!” there’s still a definite bodily response to the sweetness.

One other difference: at room temp for the same amount of time, the Zsweet frosting stayed more solid, very slightly crumbly, rather than creamy and quickly softening like the sugar version.

On strawberries:

My parents and godparents visited us during Michigan strawberry season, and I subjected them all to a sweetener taste test. Beware of visiting me; I’ll probably ask your opinion on something!

Overall, the ZSweet scored rather well: it definitely adds sweetness, doesn’t have much flavor of its own, little to no aftertaste, and everyone liked it the best of all of them.

This was compared to palm sugar (which everyone agreed added too much flavor and hid the lovely strawberry taste) and NuNaturals stevia packets, which made my godmother grimace and practically spit it out. I really notice a bitter aftertaste to the NuNaturals packets. Both men didn’t notice any difference with ZSweet, NuNaturals, or sugar. My godparents do use artificial sweeteners, Sweet ‘n’ Low only (saccharin); my parents do not. My godmother did say that she has tried Truvia and it made her physically ill – not an uncommon reaction to erythritol.

I didn’t have my Sweetleaf stevia at that point, but personally I prefer that over all the packets we tested. I think it has the least aftertaste (none), although my husband prefers NuNaturals over Sweetleaf. I still choose the liquid stevia, and both brands seem to be processed without chemicals.

Final Thoughts on Erythritol, Xylitol and Other Sugar Alcohols

I can’t say I had great luck with natural sugar substitutes that are dressed up to look like sugar. They’re all incredibly expensive, so if you had trouble digesting the triple cost of sucanat over white sugar (or empathized with my hesitance), you’ll really want to steer clear of stevia and erythritol baking blends.

My final decision is that they’re not worth it for me (even if they were less expensive). I’d rather use another really natural sweetener or just find another way to have a fun dessert without the carbs if that was vital to my health. Grain-based muffins and birthday cakes aren’t the best for diabetics, anyway, and who needs a sweetener on the perfection of a fresh Michigan strawberry!

Have you ever used sugar alcohols in baking? Did you have any luck? Any adverse reactions?

If you’ve missed any of the natural sweeteners series, here’s a list:

  • Why is White Sugar Bad for You?
  • Maple Syrup and Maple Sugar
  • Does Raw Honey have Health Benefits?
  • How to Bake with Honey (and Honey Recipes)
  • Unrefined Dehydrated Whole Cane Sugar (Rapadura, Sucanat, Panela and Muscovado)
  • Facts on Stevia: is it natural?
  • How to Use Stevia
  • The Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners
  • Sorghum: a Sweetener with Actual Value (update: tried sorghum on cornbread, and WOW, is it awesome!)

Sources: WAPF, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, Rebecca Wood, Andy Bellatti, Calorie Control, Livestrong, Body Ecology

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links from which I will earn a commission. See my full disclosure statement here.

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If you eat protein bars, or low sugar foods, you’ve probably seen sugar alcohol listed among the ingredients in many popular brands.

Sugar alcohols are found most commonly in food products labeled “sugar-free,” including hard candies, cookies, chewing gums, and soda, but have recently become very popular in “health foods”.

Do you really know what you’re consuming? Is sugar alcohol bad for you? The short answer to the latter question is “no”, sugar alcohol is not bad for you, but it is not intrinsically healthy either.

What Is Sugar Alcohol?

Sugar alcohol gets its name because of its molecular structure, which is a hybrid between a sugar molecule and an alcohol molecule. Biochemically speaking, sugar alcohols are structurally similar to sugar but are either poorly digested (e.g., maltitol), or poorly metabolized (e.g., erythritol).

Sugar alcohol has grown in popularity as a “sugar replacement” in foods such as protein bars because they contain few calories, minimally impact insulin levels, are safe for those with diabetes, and are better for your teeth.

Here’s a list of some popular sugar alcohols so you can identify them when you look at a nutrition label:

  • Erythritol
  • Maltitol
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
  • Isomalt
  • Lactitol
  • Mannitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol

The two major sugar alcohols found in protein bars and most low sugar foods are maltitol and erythritol, which are explored in more detail below.

Sugar Alcohol #1: Maltitol

Maltitol, the more popular of the two, has only 2.1 kilocalories per gram (compared to 4 for sugar) and is comprised of glucose and sorbitol (see image on right).

Only 80% as sweet as sugar, maltitol has 47% fewer calories…and won’t rot your teeth! The downside of maltitol is its poor absorption. In high doses, it will cause a laxative effect (i.e., diarrhea). This isn’t a concern in protein bars with less than 20 grams, but down a couple of the bars with over 20 grams and you might spend the afternoon in the restroom; fortunately, most companies are listing sugar alcohols directly on the label.

If “sugar alcohols” aren’t listed as a separate category under carbohydrates, check the ingredients list. You shouldn’t have to look very far because sugar alcohols will be one the first ingredients on the list.

Safety & Metabolic Effects of Maltitol

One study estimated the maximal safe dose to be 30 grams.1 40 grams caused very mild GI upset, but still no diarrhea. Furthermore, if you’re watching your weight, take comfort in the fact that maltitol causes minimal insulin secretion. This is important for maintaining blood sugar, which is a significant factor in controlling your body’s hunger. In the figure to your right, the response to 50 grams of either glucose (solid lines) or maltitol (dashed lines) is shown.2

For the record: 1) 50 grams is far more than what is found in any food products; and 2) these volunteers exhibited no side effects to 50 grams of maltitol, suggesting that the 30 gram limit mentioned above might be person-specific (i.e., some people can tolerate more than others).

Last but not least, maltitol promotes healthy gut bacteria!3

Sugar Alcohol #2: Erythritol

Erythritol is used in foods because its physical properties mimic sugar. It’s not more widely used because it has a slight cooling effect, kind of like mint, which is undesirable in some foods. This can be countered by the addition of inulin,4 a super-fiber that promotes healthy gut bacteria and I suspect companies who are trying to reduce the carbs in their protein bars will be doing more of this in the future…less sugar and more super-fiber, what more could you ask for?

Safety & metabolic effects of Erythritol

Erythritol lacks maltitols laxative and pro-gut bacteria effects because it is almost completely absorbed (~90%).

One group looked at the insulin response to a chocolate snack containing either erythritol or sugar.5 The figure to your right has been color-coded and edited for simplicity. Red = 24 grams of sugar; blue = 48 grams of erythritol.

After breakfast (Time = -2 h), which was identical in both groups, insulin went up to a similar degree confirming that subjects in both groups had a normal insulin response. After the snack (Time = 0 h), however, insulin only increased in the subjects who ate the sugar-containing chocolate (red line). And at twice the dose, the erythritol-containing chocolate snack was probably much sweeter. As mentioned above, unlike maltitol, erythritol has no GI side effects… it’s almost completely absorbed. But the other half of the story is that it is excreted almost completely intact (it’s not metabolized by the body, which accounts for its lack of calories). Did I forget to mention erythritol has virtually no calories?

So Should You Eat Sugar Alcohol?

While sugar alcohol might be better for you than actual sugar (what wouldn’t be?) it is still not intrinsically healthy. If you’ve got an insatiable craving for something sweet, sugar alcohols are the lesser evil, but in terms of healthy-eating, you would be much better off grabbing a piece of fruit than downing a protein bar full of this stuff.

Show 5 References

  1. Storey DM, Koutsou GA, Lee A, Zumbe A, Olivier P, Le Bot Y, Flourie B. Tolerance and breath hydrogen excretion following ingestion of maltitol incorporated at two levels into milk chocolate consumed by healthy young adults with and without fasting . J Nutr. 1998 Mar;128(3):587-92. ↩
  2. Secchi A, Pontiroli AE, Cammelli L, Bizzi A, Cini M, Pozza G. Effects of oral administration of maltitol on plasma glucose, plasma sorbitol, and serum insulin levels in man . Klin Wochenschr. 1986 Mar 17;64(6):265-9. ↩
  3. Beards E, Tuohy K, Gibson G. A human volunteer study to assess the impact of confectionery sweeteners on the gut microbiota composition . Br J Nutr. 2010 Sep;104(5):701-8. 2010 Apr 7. ↩
  4. Lagakos, B. taking the fun out of FODMAPs . The poor, misunderstood calorie. 2012. ↩
  5. Bornet FR, Blayo A, Dauchy F, Slama G. . Gastrointestinal response and plasma and urine determinations in human subjects given erythritol . Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 1996 Oct;24(2 Pt 2):S296-302. ↩


The Sad Truth About Sugar Alcohols

 By Danielle Kellar Food and Nutrition January 14, 2018

Falling for foods claiming lots of protein, a sweet taste and only one gram of sugar? The buzz around products sweetened with substances like erythritol is big and blinding. Many companies are jumping on the bandwagon, using sugar alcohols as a way to market their products as healthy, sugar-free or low-calorie treats. You can find sugar alcohol in items like ice cream, snack and protein bars, chewing gums, and energy drinks. If you’re trying to eat healthier, but still want to indulge in a sweet treat, these products might be tempting. But are they really a healthy alternative?

What are sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols are known as polyols. They are commonly created from the glucose of corn starch, and then industrially produced into various sugar alcohols, such as erythritol, glycerol, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH).

Currently, erythritol has become one of the most popular sugar alcohols used by food companies, and is found to be 60 to 80% sweeter than table sugar. It was originally discovered in 1848 by Scottish chemist, John Stenhouse, and Japan has been using it since the early nineties in their jams, jellies, chocolates, yogurts, and more. The food industry, as well as consumers, are loving this ingredient because it is extremely sweet, and also noncaloric. It’s an easy way to capture the hearts and minds of the health-conscious consumer, but there are surprising repercussions to consuming these alcohol and sugar hybridized molecules.

Are sugar alcohols healthy?

While people might believe that sugar alcohols are a natural alternative, the truth is that most of these products are derived from genetically modified organism (GMO) crops. So not only are you eating something highly processed and created in a laboratory, but your body doesn’t know what to do with this man-made ingredient. Instead of metabolizing these sugars, the body instead passes it through the urine. Studies have found that the consumption of GMO products is linked to infertility, immune issues, accelerated aging, and problems with the gastrointestinal system.

Sugar alcohols are typically combined with other artificial components to create that low-calorie sweet taste. They are usually highly processed, even if they boast about being a natural sweetener. Furthermore, erythritol has found to be a terrific pesticide, too! A study in 2014 found that erythritol was toxic to fruit flies and, when digested, it drastically decreased the life span of the fly. Erythritol is currently being considered as an environmentally sustainable approach for insect control.

Effects of consuming sugar alcohols

Besides the fact that sugar alcohols are coming from GMO crops and being used as a pesticide, these tiny molecules have also been found to cause a laxative effect, creating serious and sometimes painful tummy issues. According to the University of Kentucky, “some people may experience side effects even with small amounts of sugar alcohols like bloating, diarrhea, and headaches.” And while diarrhea might not seem that horrible a trade-off for eating an entire pint of ice cream, diarrhea also leads to dehydration and malnutrition. Some people also experience allergic reactions to sugar alcohols, and can experience hives and other skin reactions after consuming even small amounts.

Another issue with sugar alcohols is the fact that they are misunderstood to be a weight loss or gain prevention tool. It was previously thought that the body doesn’t recognize or metabolize these substances, and that they pass right through the body. A 2017 study discovered that erythritol is actually a biomarker for increased fat mass and weight gain. While it is not clear whether erythritol that is produced by the body and/or exposure from food contributes to the erythritol-weight gain association, there is definitely a connection to erythritol and long-term weight gain.

Eating these products can actually also lead to overeating! According to Dr. Elizabeth Bonham, artificial sweeteners confuse the reward center of the brain and trick your gut. When you are eating real sugar the reward center of the brain releases feelings of pleasure, and these feelings diminish as you increase consumption (like the law of diminishing returns). But with highly processed fake sweeteners, you don’t receive that same signal of pleasure, and hence tend to overeat. In the gut, the hormonal response to artificial sweetener is different, and the body doesn’t respond in the same way to those empty calories. This disruption can raise blood sugar levels and even cause diabetes.

Finally, excess consumption of foods laden with sugar alcohols and other artificial sweeteners can also cause an addiction to sweet tastes. While humans have some natural tendencies towards sweet flavors (human breastmilk, for example), we also have the ability to taste other flavors like sour, salty and bitter. Too much focus on sweetness dulls the tastebuds. Furthermore, it is not just our tongues that have the ability to perceive sweetness – many other organs come into play. The effects of consuming sugar alcohols can thus be seen throughout the entire body.

What are the alternatives?

I’ve always followed the adage that: if you can’t pronounce it, it doesn’t belong in your body. Sugar alcohols fall right into this category. Why consume a diarrhea causing insecticide when there are so many natural options available? When looking for a natural and healthy sweetener, think about fruit sugars or honey. Sugar that comes from fruit is processed differently by the body than refined white sugar, or sugar alcohols. Fruit also contains fiber, which slows the metabolism of glucose and allows a variety of nutrients to enter the body. At B.O.S.S. Food Co., we only use dried fruits, honey, and coconut nectar to sweeten our superfood bars, because we know important natural sugar is for the body and mind. All of the fruit is purchased unsweetened, with no added juice sweeteners, sugar or other additives.

Don’t let the marketing and gimmicks fool you. Not all sugars are created equal, and certainly not ones made in a lab with GMO ingredients! According to Dr. Axe, certified Doctor of Natural Health, sugar alcohols fall in his list of the top five worst artificial sweeteners. So, before you reach for that low-calorie, sugar-alcohol-sweetened treat, stop and think about what you are putting in your body.

Is sugar an alcohol?

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