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  • Writer's pictureBrian Dooreck MD

Identifying Sugar Alcohols in Food

Updated: Jul 24, 2023



If you're health-conscious, you are probably an expert at reading product labels. But what about food that contains sugar alcohols as a sweetener? Sugar has become inextricably linked to our nutrition and way of life. The decision to consume sugar regularly is increasingly in your hands.


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Sugar alcohols are a type of alternative carbohydrate that can cause symptoms in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

What is sugar alcohol?

Sugar alcohols are often used as a sugar substitute within many products, especially those branded "sugar-free" or "no sugar added." This ingredient is found in fruits and vegetables; others are in reduced-sugar products.



How does my body digest sugar alcohols?


Sugars are digested in the intestine and then transferred to the bloodstream, where they are processed or utilized for energy. Sugar alcohols, on the other hand, are poorly digested by your body. This can induce bloating, stomach pain, and diarrhea at higher ingestion levels since they are not fully absorbed by the body and are fermented by bacteria in the colon.


Moderate dosages of 10 to 15 grams of sugar alcohol daily are tolerated. Since sugar alcohols are not intensively absorbed like sugar, they impact your blood sugar levels less.

Where are sugar alcohols found?


Products containing sugar alcohols, sorbitol, or mannitol, must be labeled with a warning which states "excess consumptions may have a laxative effect." Besides identifying labels, the sugar-free and reduced-sugar products include:


  • Chewing gum

  • Flavored jam and jelly

  • Desserts

  • Sweets

  • Baked goods


Calculating sugar alcohols







In this example, the total carbohydrate per saving will be 13 grams - 1/2 the carbohydrate in the sugar alcohol.


One-half of the sugar in the sugar alcohol per serving is:


6g CHO ÷ 2 = 3 grams of CHO


Total carbohydrate per serving is:


13 grams - 3 grams for the sugar alcohol = 10 grams







When counting carbs, calculate half of the sugar from the sugar alcohol.

Typical ingredients of sugar alcohols include:


Sorbitol


Sorbitol has an excellent taste. This sugar alcohol has 60% of the sweetness of sugar but just 60% of the calories. It's also popular in sugar-free snacks and fruits, such as apples and soft sweets. Although sorbitol has a minor influence on blood sugar and insulin levels, it can induce stomach problems later.


Erythritol


Erythritol is another sugar alcohol that is thought to have a rich flavor. Since erythritol does not reach your large intestine considerably, it does not have the same digestive adverse effects as most other sugar alcohols. This sugar alcohol is made by fermenting glucose in cornstarch, and it is 70% sweeter than sugar but only has 5% of the calories.


Maltitol


Maltitol is made from sugar maltose and has a flavor and texture related to ordinary sugar. This sugar alcohol has 90% of the sweetness of sugar but only half of the calories. If you have diabetes, be cautious of low-carb foods sweetened with maltitol and closely monitor your blood sugar levels. Maltitol can be found in ice cream, chewing gum, and desserts.


Other sugar alcohols


Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH), mannitol, xylitol, and isomalt are other sugar alcohols typically found in sugar-free food.


Check out this video from TED-Ed, “How sugar affects the brain.”



How does sugar alcohol differ from sugar?


Sugar and sugar alcohols contrast significantly regarding calories, sugar levels, and digestion.

While sugar causes tooth decay, sugar alcohols like xylitol and erythritol help to prevent it. Sugar alcohol is used in toothpaste and sugar-free gum for this reason. Learn more about added sugar in this blog post.


Personally


I eat a high-fiber, mostly plant-based 🌱 diet, no red meat, drink 4 liters of water a day, exercise, and am focused on keeping nutrition simple. I am sharing what works for me and what I routinely recommend to my patients.


"Balance. Portion control. Keep nutrition simple. Eat Smart. Eat Healthy. 🌱 🌾 🌿"

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Connect with Dr. Dooreck on LinkedIn, where he focuses his sharing on Health, Diet, Nutrition, Exercise, Lifestyle, and Balance.


 

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