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Get excited about nutrition, and learn as you go with these information-packed resources on a wide variety of nutrition-centric topics! Our bistroMD experts review the importance of the macronutrients protein, fat, and carbohydrates, as well as how to make them work most efficiently for you.

What is Sugar Alcohol and What are the Risks?

Sugar alcohols are utilized and witnessed as a sugar substitute, chiefly in hopes to cut down on both sugar and calorie intake. Whether it be to manage blood sugar or facilitate weight loss, is the use of sugar alcohol a risky move? Let’s find out!


What Is Sugar Alcohol?

Also known as "polyols," sugar alcohols are a combination of sugar and alcohol, though not displaying the characteristics associated with ethanol found in beer, wine, and liquor. Instead, sugar alcohols can be derived from naturally-occurring carbohydrates, offering sweetness to products without the direct use of sugar. But despite its occurrence in many plants and fruits, commercial manufacturers now have the ability to produce sugar alcohols from a number of glucose syrups, manipulating and transforming the chemical structure. As you may notice, the suffix '-ol' attaches itself on common sugar alcohols, further allowing it to be discovered on commercial products:

• Erythritol
• Lactitol
• Isomalt
• Mannitol
• Ribitol
• Sorbitol
• Xylitol
• Maltitol

All sources aside, sugar alcohols are considered to be a nutritive sweetener, as they do provide calories, though in a reduced amount. But unlike common table sugar (sucrose), sugar alcohol types offer sweetness to products without affecting blood sugar. Sugar alcohols further act as a bulking agent, providing concentrated sweetness without greatly impacting calorie content. The additional desirable textures allow manufacturers to create sugar-free candies, chewing gums, cookies, ice creams, and other sweetened goods into "sugar-free" or "reduced-carb" products.

With such great appeal of sugar alcohol, are they too good to be true? Health experts suggest they offer a place in the diet to an extent. First off, it is important to recognize "sugar-free" and "reduced-carb" does not necessarily mean they are healthy. Most of the products sugar alcohols are incorporated into may still be high in carbohydrate (mostly from flours) and fat (in the form of butters and oils). If trying to cut calories, the intake of such products may be a better alternative compared to its sugar-counterpart, though it is still imperative to pay attention to nutrition labels. Reduced sugar calorie has further shown to be better tolerated in individuals managing blood sugars, as they are digested more slowly and incompletely.

Sugar Alcohol Side Effects

Most commonly, individuals experience and report gastrointestinal (GI) effects following sugar alcohol. Undesirable bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea may arise related to its absorption process (or lack thereof). Generally, when foods are consumed, they are broken down in the GI tract and absorbed to obtain energy and nutrients. Sugar alcohols, though, are not completely absorbed and causes fermentation in the intestines, ultimately creating gas and potentially causing distress. However, all people have varying symptoms and sensitivities to its intake, as some report highly unpleasant GI symptoms while others may not experience any discomfort at all.

Written By Sydney Lappe, MS, RDN. Published on December 13, 2016. Updated on March 28, 2017.


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