What are sugar alcohols?
Sugar alcohols are found in many “sugar free” foods and low sugar or low calorie foods and beverages. These products include sugar-free gum and candy, no sugar added ice creams, yogurts, and puddings, and some baked goods. Their chemical structure consists of a simple carbohydrate attached to an alcohol group. Some examples include lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and erythritol. You can identify them by the -ol at the end of their name on the food label. There has been a recent increase in the consumption of one sugar alcohol in particular, erythritol. With many popular diets now telling us that these are safe and beneficial in reducing calories, many are wondering, “Are they actually good for us?”
Sugar alcohols are not as sweet as our favorite “natural sweetener”, Stevia, or our artificial sweeteners like sucralose, aspartame, or saccharin, so many times you will find them in a blend product. For example, Truvia is a mix of stevia and erythritol. The sugar alcohols range in sweetness from 55-70% as sweet as sugar.
Potential Negatives of Sugar Alcohols
There are three potentially negative effects of sugar alcohols. One, when in the digestive system, sugar alcohols are not completely digested. This is why they provide less calories and may cause flatulence and diarrhea. Second, they could affect our good gut bacteria in negative ways. This means we may have less of our good gut bacteria when we eat these sugar alcohols. Recently we have been learning more and more about how important these good bacteria are in all areas of our health. Lastly, they may have negative effects on our appetite regulation and control.
Erythritol does stand out a little compared to the other sugar alcohols as it contains virtually no Calories (0.2 per gram), and it cause less digestive distress than many of the others because it’s chemical structure is different. Most of the other sugar alcohols contain about 2.5 Calories per gram which a little less than half that of sugar (4 Calories per gram). For these reasons, erythritol is probably the best of all of them.
Sugar alcohols belong to a family of carbohydrates called the polyls. These polyls are the P in the low-FODMAP diet which many physicians are prescribing to their patients with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) or other digestive conditions. The low-FODMAP diet has been clinically proven to improve symptoms of IBS, Chrons disease, and Ulcerative Colitis.
Currently, there is very little research, especially long-term regarding sugar alcohol consumption in humans. There is some knowledge that these sugar alcohols are probably less carcinogenic than the artificial sweeteners. There are no health benefits associated with consumption of sugar alcohols. Based on the little research done, the upper limit suggested for sugar alcohols is no more than 40-50 grams per day for adults and 30 grams per day for children. However, many people do experience GI symptoms when consuming as little at 5 grams at a time. Many sugar-free candies will put you over this limit with just a piece or two.
It seems we are always looking for the newest and best sweetener that will end our problems with sugar. With the potential to cause gastrointestinal distress, a disruption of our good bacteria, and a change in our appetite regulation, sugar alcohols are not the magic we have been waiting for. While they seem to be OK when consumed in small amounts, the benefits we will see to our health will likely come when we start to cut down all types of sugars and sweeteners.
The best alternative to sugar is simply not using as much sugar.
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Sugar Alcohols and Diabetes: A Review. Thomas M.S.Wolever, MD PhD, Ana Piekarz RD, Marjorie Hollands MSc RD CDE, Katherine Younker MBA RD CDE. Canadian Journal of Diabetes. 2002;26(4):356-362.
Gastrointestinal Disturbances Associated with the Consumption of Sugar Alcohols with Special Consideration of Xylitol: Scientific Review and Instructions for Dentists and Other Health-Care Professionals. Kauko K. Mäkinen. Int J Dent. 2016; 2016: 5967907
Xylotol affects the intestinal microbiota and metabolism of diadzein in adult male mice. Tamura M, et al. 2013 Dec 10: 14 (12): 23993-4007. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24336061