If you’re into reading ingredient labels on your food products (as you should be!), you’ve probably run into a few items that contain something called sugar alcohols. Despite what you might deduce from its name, this increasingly common ingredient doesn’t consist of sugar or alcohol.
Instead, sugar alcohols are a hybrid substance used to sweeten foods that retain some aspects of sugar, such as the sweetness, but also have a hydroxyl (an “-OH” or alcohol) molecule attached to it, explains Suzanne Dixon, RD. “Any compound with the right type of configuration and an ‘OH’ (that’s oxygen and hydrogen) tacked onto it is an alcohol, per chemistry classification. Sugar alcohol is technically alcohol. However, it’s not the same type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages,” she says. The type of alcohol that is in beverages we drink is ethanol. It has the same “ol” ending, but it produces that “drunk” or “tipsy” feeling.
Sugar alcohols, on the other hand, aren’t going to get you buzzed. They’re considered perfectly safe for people who need to avoid alcohol for medical or addiction reasons, explains Dixon. “Commercially manufactured sugar alcohols were created to provide a way to sweeten foods without having the calories of regular, simple sugar, and to minimize the insulin reaction in the person eating the food.”
What foods contain sugar alcohols?
Most commonly, you will find sugar alcohols in foods or beverages that are low-calorie, low-carb and low- (or no-) sugar. For example, chewing gum, candies, energy bars, and ice cream. You can also find them naturally in small amounts of some fruits and vegetables, according to Dixon. These include watermelon, pineapple, kiwi, asparagus, and sweet potato.
What are the benefits of consuming sugar alcohols?
One of the biggest perks of eating sugar alcohols is that it provides the sweetness consumers crave without the spike in blood glucose levels that their doctor warns them about, according to Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN and author of Eating in Color. “They also help mask the often bitter flavor of other non-nutritive (calorie-free) sweeteners. And [they] are a good option for diabetics,” she adds. “While they are not entirely calorie-free, they are much lower in calories than sugar and erythritol, in particular, [which] has only 0.2 calories per gram.” While the blood sugar may elevate, it’s much lower than the response to regular sugar.
Additionally, if you’re worried about the potential dental drama that might ensue from eating sweet stuff, don’t be. Sugar alcohols do not promote tooth decay as sugar does. Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., personal trainer, doctor of nutrition, and owner of eatrightfitness explains that this is one of the main reasons that they are added to sugar-free chewing gums and sugar-free hard candies.
What are some side effects of sugar alcohols?
Like most things, sugar alcohols do come with their own set of cons. The main one is their undesirable side effects. The digestive system does not completely absorb sugar alcohols. So, they ferment in the intestines. This can create gas, and leads to bloating when consumed in large amounts, explains Largeman-Roth. “The bloating is what causes the stomach pain,” she adds. Additionally, when eaten in large amounts, sugar alcohols can cause diarrhea.
At the end of the day, sugar alcohols are neither better nor worse than sugar. They’re just different. “They may be a better choice for diabetics as they have a lower insulin and blood sugar response. And [they] may also be helpful for those watching their calories. However, for people who chew a lot of gum or consume many mints during the day, this may lead to gastrointestinal issues and a constant feeling of pressure in the stomach area,” explains Dr. Adams. “If consumed in moderation, they can be a healthy part of the diet.”