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Sugar Alcohols: What Are They? Are They Safe?

Reviewed By Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and certified Personal Trainer Alexandra Dusenberry, MS, RDN
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Sugar Alcohols: What Are They? Are They Safe? November 9, 2018

Ever stopped yourself from having that sugary something because it was, well, sugary? Sugar alcohols might just come to your rescue. They have been popular alternatives to sugar for decades. They taste and look like sugar but have just half the calories. And they offer some important benefits as well. In this post, we have covered much about them. Keep reading.

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What Are Sugar Alcohols?

These are organic compounds usually derived from sugar. They are water-soluble white solids that can occur naturally (in fruits and vegetables). They are also produced industrially from sugars. In the food industry, they are used as sweeteners and thickeners and even in the place of table sugar.

Sugar alcohols have the same chemical structure as sugar, and they activate the sweet receptors in your tongue. The result – you feel the sweet taste without consuming the excess calories in sugar.

These hybrids (of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules) are added in most foods labeled “sugar free” or “no added sugar.” Your small intestine doesn’t absorb sugar alcohols quite effectively – and this means you intake only fewer calories. But because they are not absorbed, consuming them in excess can cause gas and bloating.

Some of the most common sugar alcohols include:

  • Maltitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol
  • Erythritol
  • Mannitol
  • Isomalt
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates

You can find any of these names in the ingredient list of foods marketed as sugar free.

Sugar alcohols may be of benefit if you are looking to lose weight. Replacing the sugar in your food with sugar alcohols can help. There are other ways these organic compounds can be good for you. We will look at all of those now.

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What Are The Benefits Of Sugar Alcohols?

1. May Help With Weight Loss

May Help With Weight Loss Pinit

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Reports suggest that sugar substitutes can help with weight loss (1). While sugar contains about 4 calories per gram, sugar alcohols contain about 1.5 to 2 calories.

In a study on rats, sugar alcohols had shown anti-obesity effects. Rats with diet-induced obesity, when ingested with xylitol, showed improvement in symptoms of obesity and associated metabolic abnormalities (2).

2. Can Help Lower Blood Sugar Levels

As sugar alcohols are hard to be digested in the body, they have a negligible effect on blood sugar levels. In fact, their effect is far less than that of sugar (3). These compounds also offer fewer calories than other carbohydrates.

3. Can Boost Dental Health

Sugar causes tooth decay. It feeds certain microbes in the mouth, which, in turn, secrete acids and erode the enamel. But with sugar alcohols, this is not the case. Sugar alcohols like sorbitol, xylitol, and erythritol were found to prevent tooth decay (4).

4. May Promote Bone Health

This could especially be true in diabetes patients. Dietary supplementation of sugar alcohols (xylitol, in particular) can prevent the bones from weakening. The compounds were found to preserve bone mineral content (5). In another study, xylitol was also found to increase bone volume (6).

5. Can Enhance Skin Health

We know collagen is one of the most important proteins in the skin and connective tissues. Studies show how xylitol supplementation can help boost collagen production in the human body (7).

Impressive benefits, right? But does this mean sugar alcohols are the new health foods? Probably not. They are some concerns too.

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Do Sugar Alcohols Have Any Side Effects?

The major side effect sugar alcohols may cause is digestive distress. This is true if you take them in large amounts.

Your body cannot digest most of them. Though this is a benefit, it can also be a side effect. They can cause gas, bloating, and even diarrhea. And if you have irritable bowel syndrome, please stay away from sugar alcohols.

Maltitol and sorbitol seem to cause the most distress, while erythritol and xylitol may cause only a few symptoms (8). Be sure to check the labels and ingredient list.

Also, xylitol can be toxic to dogs. When dogs consume xylitol, their bodies mistake it for sugar and start producing excess amounts of insulin. As a result, the cells start pulling sugar from the bloodstream – leading to hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. This can be dangerous (9).

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Conclusion

Sugar alcohols seem to be the new respite – more so for people looking to cut down on sugar. But please understand that balance is important – you don’t want to pile up on sugar alcohols and get used to them just because they are lower in calories. If you take them within the limit, you are good to go.

Expert’s Answers For Readers’ Questions

How much of sugar alcohols a day would be too much?

The upper limit of sugar alcohols you can take in a day is 20-30 g.

Which is the healthiest sugar alcohol?

Erythritol. It has no calories, doesn’t affect blood sugar, and causes fewer digestive issues if taken in excess. It may not be as toxic to your dog (but still we don’t recommend you give it to your dog).

References

  1. Sweeteners – sugar substitutes”. US National Library of Medicine.
  2. Effects of xylitol on metabolic…”. Journal of Clinical Biochemistry and Nutrition, US National Library of Medicine.
  3. Counting sugar alcohols”. University of California, San Francisco.
  4. Sugar alcohols, caries incidence, and…”. International Journal of Dentistry, US National Library of Medicine.
  5. Dietary xylitol supplementation prevents…”. Metabolism, US National Library of Medicine.
  6. Increased bone volume and bone mineral…”. Gerontology, US National Library of Medicine.
  7. Effects of a long-term dietary xylitol…”. Gerontology, US National Library of Medicine.
  8. Gastrointestinal disturbances associated with…”. International Journal of Dentistry, US National Library of Medicine.
  9. Xylitol toxicosis in dogs”. The Veterinary Clinics of North America, US National Library of Medicine.
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