The Truth behind Sugar Alcohols
Updated: Feb 13, 2019
Most of our "sugar free" foods use them, but how do they affect our diet and weight loss goals? Learn about their impact on your health, waist line, and food supply.
As our nation looks for more options to reduce its sugar intake, sugar alcohols have offered "sugar-free" alternatives in our food supply. From protein bars to mouthwashes, sugar alcohols offer the sweetness we want in our foods without the extra calories and oral health concerns from sugar. They are different from artificial sweeteners, like sucralose (found in Splenda), aspartame (found in Equal, Sweet and Low, and diet drinks), and acesulfame k (found in diet drinks, protein powders, supplements, etc.), which are purely chemicals. From a health standpoint, we want to avoid these artificial sweeteners at all costs due to their impacts on the brain. Studies show they actually increase our cravings for sweet foods and beverages and corroborate with lectins, which pretty much ruin any chance we have at losing weight, fighting inflammation, and feeling energized.
Stevia and monk fruit are also not sugar alcohols. These are both naturally derived from the stevia plant and monk fruit and are naturally calorie-free. Of all of the sugar alternatives on the market, stevia and monk fruit are the best for weight loss, as long as they are pure and not adulterated by additives, such as dextrin, dextrose, malodextrin (these three are all food thickening ingredients derived from GMO corn), and natural flavors (which, newsflash, AREN'T natural). These also mess with our metabolism, hormones, and other bodily functions that impede weight loss and cause inflammation.
So now that I've reviewed commonly known sugar alternatives that are not sugar alcohols, let's talk about the topic at hand.
What are Sugar Alcohols, and are they harmful?
While some sugar alcohols are derived from fruits and vegetables, others are man-made, and some are a combination of natural derivatives and man-made. Most sugar alcohols are not calorie-free (like artificial sweeteners), yet since they aren't fully absorbed by the small intestine, your body absorbs less calories than regular sugar. This creates a double edged sword: since sugar alcohols aren't fully digested, this can lead to gas, bloating, or diarrhea if consumed in excess quantities. As a result, people who have IBS, Crohn's, or other digestive issues should avoid sugar alcohols. However, a healthy individual may consume them in small doses. In fact, those with diabetes can benefit from consuming sugar alcohols because they have less of an impact on blood sugar levels.
So wait, Sugar Alcohols aren't calorie-free?
In most cases, yes. Sugar alcohols technically are a kind of carbohydrate, so if you are counting your carbs, you'll need to account for your sugar alcohols as well. This is why if you eat too products with sugar alcohols, your blood sugar may rise. Erythritol is the exception; it contains 0 calories per gram and has zero effect on blood sugar.
If I follow a low-carb or Ketogenic diet, how am I affected?
If you're tracking your carbs each day, luckily sugar alcohols count for half the amount of regular carbs. For example, if a protein bar has 20 total carbohydrates and 6 grams of sugar alcohols, then we divide the sugar alcohols in half (3 grams) and subtract fro the total carbohydrates, which would be 17g net carbs. The only exception to this is erythritol, which is calorie free and has zero impact on blood sugar. In this example, if there were 6g of erythritol, there would be 14g net carbs.
Which Sugar Alcohols should I consume?
As a nutrition coach, I advise all clients to avoid all sugar alcohols derived from corn, because over 90% of corn in the U.S is genetically modified, which has many health consequences and makes weight loss much more difficult. These sugar alcohols commonly found in lower-grade diet products, such as protein shakes, bars, powders, sugar-free desserts, sugar-free chocolate, sugar-free chewing gum, ice cream, pudding, yogurts, candy, drinks, and fruit snacks. Many of these foods have warning labels about overconsumption that can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
Then there are others that are safer for consumption because they undergo a fermentation process and aren't derived from corn. Below I outline the most commonly found Sugar Alcohols in packaged foods, sugar packets, and baking supplies:
Avoid these Sugar Alcohols (cause gas, bloating, and/or diarrhea in most people if overconsumed)
1. Sorbitol: derived from fruit, yet combined with dextrose (man-made from cornstarch) when used in food products.
2. Malitol: man-made using maltose, which is derived from cornstarch. One of the most commonly used sugar alcohols.
Side note: I personally cannot tolerate ANY malitol! It ruins my stomach!
3. Mannitol: It is naturally found in several plants, like strawberries, onions, and mushrooms. However, it is also derived from corn starch (as fructose).
Consume these Sugar Alcohols (but still don't overdo it)
1. Xylitol: This is commonly found in chewing gums, toothpastes, and mouth washes because it has a slightly mint, cooling after taste. It is NOT safe for dogs, so please don't feed them any peanut butters or other treats that may have sweeteners! It can be made from birch wood, corncobs, and leftover sugarcane stalks.
2. Erythritol: This is perhaps the best of all the sugar alcohols, especially for people trying to lose weight or following a ketogetic diet, since it is completely calorie free. While it is also derived from corn, it undergoes a special fermentation process that makes it less toxic. In many Stevia packets and extracts, you may see Erythritol added, and that's OK. This is used in popular foods like Halo Top, but also note that the ice cream also uses cane sugar, so eat with caution!
What about Coconut Sugar?
Even thought this article is about Sugar Alcohols, I get this question a lot in any sugar discussion, so I'll address it here. Coconut sugar certainly has more health benefits than cane sugar (virtually anything does, FYI) and has a lower GI effect, but it is not very sweet. As a result, people end up using more sugar and consuming just as many calories as regular sugar. So if weight loss is your goal, coconut sugar will not serve you as well as Stevia, Monk fruit, Xylitol, or Erythritol.
Conclusion: Who should eat Sugar Alcohols?
Sugar Alcohols are great for diabetics, people trying to lose weight, and people who are sedentary for a majority of the day and do not burn excess glucose from consumed foods. For most people, they are safe in small doses (think one protein bar a day), but we shouldn't be dependent on them (think one protein bar, one sugar-free chocolate bar, and Halo Top in the same day). They are also good for oral health and help prevent cavities and tooth decay!
My choice sweeteners are always pure Stevia or Monk fruit (not the ones with added dextrin, dextrose, malitol, malodextrin, or natural flavors), but Erythritol and Xylitol are also better options, if yor stomach can handle them.
For more information on healthy eating and enjoy the sweeter things in life guilt free, check out my Instagram handles @fitnesswithkristin and @createmyweight.
Kristin is a veteran sweets eater, baker, and advocate. She believes in enjoying dessert in moderation and with more wholesome, healthy ingredients that serve our bodies and mind. For more questions about sugar alternatives, email her at Kristin@createmyweight.com