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What are Sugar Alcohols?
Adapted by Jessica Kovarik, Extension Associate, University of Missouri Extension from materials written by Tammy Roberts, MS, RD, LD, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, Barton County, University of Missouri Extension
You’ve no doubt seen a chewing gum or candy label that states the product contains sugar alcohols. The product is usually appealing because it has significantly less calories than the same product made with regular cane sugar. Sugar alcohols are neither a sugar nor an alcohol, but get their name because their chemical structure is similar to sugar and alcohol. It’s easy to assume sugar alcohols are just another sugar substitute, but that is not the case.
So what’s the difference between sugar, artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols?
Table sugar has 4 calories per gram and causes blood sugar levels to change.
These contain zero calories, but do not contain carbohydrates. Thus, artificial sweeteners do not cause blood sugar levels to increase.
Sugar alcohols have an average of 2.6 calories per gram, but depending on the sugar alcohol, may contain from .02 to 3 calories per gram. Sugar alcohols do contain carbohydrates and thus can impact blood sugar levels.
Some of the more common sugar alcohols include mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, isomalt and maltitol. Some of the foods, other than the ones already mentioned, that might contain sugar alcohols include hard candies, cookies, soft drinks and throat lozenges. Mouthwash and toothpaste may also contain sugar alcohols. A reason that sugar alcohols are used in chewing gum is that bacteria in the mouth do no act upon sugar alcohols, so tooth decay does not occur.
Sugar alcohols are used for the same reason that artificial sweeteners are used: they provide fewer calories than regular sugar. According to the International Food Information Council, sugar alcohols are slowly and incompletely absorbed from the small intestine into the blood. Little or no insulin is needed to convert sugar alcohols to energy. The sugar alcohol that is not absorbed into the blood pass from the small intestine to the large intestine and ferment. As a result, abdominal gas and discomfort can occur after consuming foods that contain sugar alcohols. Eating too much sugar alcohol can also have a laxative effect.
Used in moderation, sugar alcohols can play a role in healthy eating plans for people managing weight, and for diabetics. However, people with diabetes should consult their physician, dietitian or diabetes educator about incorporating sugar alcohols into their eating plan.
Last update: Tuesday, May 05, 2009