Nutrition labels are getting harder and harder to decipher. First we were told to count calories, then to monitor fiber, to track “net carbs”, and more recently to look at “sugar alcohols”. Their name is appealing. One could suppose that sugar + alcohol = a daiquiri. However, sugar alcohols don’t contain any alcohol. They are naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables, but can also be commercially produced from sucrose, glucose, and other similar carbohydrates.
Sugar alcohols contain fewer calories (1.5 – 3 calories per gram) than sugar (4 calories per gram). They also add texture to foods, retain moisture, prevent foods from browning when they are heated, add a cooling effect to the taste of food, and do not cause tooth decay because they aren’t acted upon by bacteria in our mouths.
One of the main reasons that sugar alcohols have become so prevalent is that they don’t affect blood glucose levels in the same way that sugar does. They don’t cause a spike in blood sugar because once they are absorbed, they are converted to energy by processes that require little or no insulin.
For those who are concerned with their caloric intake, the American Diabetes Association has published a guideline to estimate how much carbohydrate each serving provides. For food that has more than 5 grams of sugar alcohols, subtract half of the grams of the sugar alcohol from the total carbohydrate count. The remaining grams of carbohydrates are the amount you should count in your meal plan.
For example, the nutritional facts for the protein supplement bar listed below show 12 grams of sugar alcohols and 20 total grams of carbohydrates.
- Total carbohydrates – (sugar alcohols/2) = grams of carbohydrates
- 20 – (12/2) = 14 grams of carbohydrates
Ingredients: Protein Blend (Whey Protein Hydrolysate, Milk Protein Isolate, Whey Protein Isolate), Chocolate Flavored Coating (Maltitol, Fractionated Palm Kernel Oil, Whey Protein Concentrate, Cocoa (processed with alkali), Calcium Carbonate, Natural Flavor, Soy Lecithin, Sucralose), hydrolyzed Gelatin, Glycerin, Cocoa (processed with alkali), Water, Chocolate Flavored Chips (Lactitol, Chocolate Liquor, Cocoa Butter, Soy Lecithin, Vanilla, Acesulfame K), Maltitol Syrup, Natural and Artificial Flavor (contains caramel color), Calcium Carbonate, Peanut Flour, vitamin and Mineral Blend (Ascorbic Acid, Tricalcium Phosphate, d-Alpha Tocopheryl Acetate, Niacinamide, Zinc Oxide, Copper Gluconate, Calcium d-Pantothenate, Vitamin A Palmitate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamin Monoitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid, Biotin, Potassium Iodide, Cyanocobalamin), Sucralose.
You can see that the sugar alcohol content (12 grams) is listed under “Total Carbohydrate”, and also that the individual sugar alcohols such as maltitol and maltitol syrup are reported in the ingredients. The manufacturer of this protein bar, as many do, chose to do so voluntarily. However if a product is labeled “sugar free” or “no added sugar”, the sugar alcohol count must be listed separately, and is most often under carbohydrates. Each sugar alcohol used will also be included in the product’s ingredient list.
Some of the more commonly used sugar alcohols are:
- Xylitol. Often found in chewing gum. It occurs naturally in fruit, vegetables, and some cereals. Xylitol has the same relative sweetness as sugar which means that equal amounts of each will provide the same sweetness. It is sometimes referred to as “wood sugar”.
- Erythritol. Often found in baked goods and beverages. It is about 60-70% as sweet as sugar. It does not cause gassiness, bloating, or a laxative effect, and is calorie-free.
Maltitol. Used in sugar free hard candy, chewing gum, chocolate-flavored desserts, various baked goods, and ice cream. It gives a creamy texture to food. It is derived from corn, or wheat or potato starch. Maltitol is 90 percent as sweet as sugar, and maltitol syrup is about 25 – 50%.
- Mannitol. Occurs naturally in pineapples, olives, asparagus, sweet potatoes and carrots. It is extracted from seaweed for use in food manufacturing. It is derived from fructose. Mannitol has 50-70 percent of the relative sweetness of sugar. It stays in the intestines for a long time and often causes bloating and diarrhea.
- Sorbitol. Also used in sugar free gum and candy. It is found naturally in fruits and vegetables. It is manufactured from corn syrup. Sorbitol has only 50 percent of the relative sweetness of sugar. It has less of a tendency to cause diarrhea compared to mannitol.
- Isomalt. Used in hard candy, toffee, and cough drops. It is 45 – 65% as sweet as sugar. Isomalt is derived from sucrose, about the same size as sugar, absorbs little water, and does not tend to lose its sweetness or break down during the heating process.
- Lactitol. Found in sugar free ice cream, chocolate, hard and soft candies, various baked goods, sugar-reduced preserves and chewing gum. It is derived from lactose. Lactitol is similar to sugar in its taste, solubility and size, although it is only about 30 – 40% as sweet.
- Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH). Found in confections, baked goods, and mouthwashes. They vary from 40 – 90% as sweet as sugar.
It is important to note that sugar alcohols are not new to manufacturers. They have been used since the 1960s in chewing gum and hard candy, cough syrups, toothpastes, and mouthwashes, just to name a few products. Sugar alcohols are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, and are considered food additives.
However, sugar alcohols are not the perfect food. The most common side effect is the possibility of bloating, diarrhea, and flatulence when more than 20 – 50 grams a day are eaten. This varies with each person and their individual diets.
The American Diabetes Association reports that some people with diabetes, especially Type I diabetics, have found that their blood sugar rises if sugar alcohols are eaten in uncontrolled amounts.
And for all dog owners, it is important to note that xylitol is extremely dangerous to dogs. Even a very small amount can quickly cause severe liver damage and/or death.
Choosing to eat food or use products that are made with sugar or with sugar alcohol is your decision. Some people prefer the taste of sugar and the crispness and brownness of it when used in baking. Others, either because they are diabetic or just want to reduce the amount of sugar they eat or drink, will choose sugar alcohols. There isn’t one answer for everyone. But with this information, you can make an informed decision.