The Not-So-Sweet Truth About Sugar Alcohols

A box of piles of sugar on the table

Written by Chrissy Arsenault, MBA, RDN, LD

What Are Sugar Alcohols?

If you’ve eaten foods with the label “sugar-free” to try to reduce your sugar intake, chances are high that you’ve eaten foods containing sugar alcohols before. They’re often found in baked goods, candies, gums, ice cream, and pudding, to name a few.

Sugar alcohols are sweeteners called polyols – they have a similar chemical structure to sugar. Despite their names, sugar alcohols are typically derived from fruits, veggies, and milk, not from sugar or alcohol.

Depending on the compound, they can be 25 to 100 percent as sweet as sugar, without the added calories. Table sugar typically contains 4 calories per gram, whereas sugar alcohols contain an average of 2 calories per gram.[1] This means that by replacing sugar with sugar alcohols in your food, you may be able to save some calories.

Some common sugar alcohols that you’ll find on the ingredient list for foods include: [2]

  • Xylitol: 100 percent as sweet as sugar; comes from birch wood, wheat, corn, and cereals.
  • Sorbitol: 50 to 60 percent as sweet as sugar; comes from fruits, corn syrup, and cornstarch.
  • Erythritol: 60 to 70 percent as sweet as sugar; comes from fruits, soy sauce, and corn (involves fermentation).
  • Maltitol: 75 percent as sweet as sugar; comes from maltose in corn syrup.
  • Mannitol: 50 to 70 percent as sweet as sugar; comes from carrots, berries, onions, olives, seaweed, and fructose from cornstarch.
  • Lactitol: 40 percent as sweet as sugar; comes from milk.
  • Isomalt: 45 to 65 percent as sweet as sugar; comes from beet sugar.
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates: 20 to 90 percent as sweet as sugar; comes from a mix of various sugar alcohols or from starch like cornstarch.

You can usually identify sugar alcohol by its ending – they end in “-ol” since they are polyol compounds.

chocolate chip cookies

Why Are Sugar Alcohols So Popular?

Typically, people look to foods containing sugar alcohols for weight management or diabetes management since they contain fewer calories per gram than table sugar. 

Here are some reasons why sugar alcohols are a popular choice:

  • Sugar alcohols are lower in calories and carbs compared to sugar, so you can cut back on these in your diet. Only half of the carb content in sugar alcohols is counted toward the calculation for net carbs. [3] For example, in a sugar-free candy bar with 30 grams of maltitol, the maltitol would only contribute 15 grams of net carbs and 60 calories to your diet. Compare that with 30 grams of sugar, which would contribute 30 grams of net carbs and 120 calories — double the number of net carbs and calories!
  • They’re digested differently from table sugar. Many of these compounds are slowly converted to glucose in our intestines and incompletely absorbed. [4] This means that you don’t end up using all the calories or carbs from sugar alcohols for energy — which is helpful for those craving something sweet but don’t want the empty calories from sugar.
  • Compared to sugar, sugar alcohols have a lower glycemic index. This means that they are less likely to cause blood sugar spikes like sugar would (which can make you feel crummy in the short-term and affect your blood vessels and organs over the long term).
  • Sugar alcohols aren’t broken down by saliva in your mouth, so they don’t contribute to tooth decay. [5] You’ll find many sugar-free gums containing xylitol for this exact reason!

Does all of the above sound too good to be true? Read on to learn why sugar alcohols may not be the best choice when you’re trying to reduce your added sugar intake.

strawberries and sugar

The Not-So-Sweet Truth About Sugar Alcohols

Before you grab that bag of sugar-free chocolates or snack bars, let’s review the not-so-sweet side of consuming sugar alcohols through food.

  • Digestive Problems

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that up to 10 to 15 grams of sugar alcohol per day are generally well-tolerated. However, at higher doses greater than 30 grams per day, many sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, mannitol, lactitol, isomalt, and xylitol can result in undesirable side effects. [6]

Unlike sugar, which is digested and absorbed fairly quickly in the body by being converted to glucose, most sugar alcohols are partially absorbed and then fermented in your colon. This means that they often linger in your intestines and can make you have gas, watery stools, and diarrhea!

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires sugar alcohols like sorbitol and mannitol to state the risk of a laxative effect on the label.

  • Sugar-Free Doesn’t Mean Healthy

It’s easy to look at a food that’s labeled sugar-free and assume that it’s a better-for-you product. However, remember that sugar alcohols still contain carbs and calories  — although less than that of table sugar. 

Before you indulge in sugar-free treats, be sure to check out the nutrition label. You’ll find the number of calories, total carbs, and sugar alcohol content (which you can use to calculate net carbs). 

Also, if you’re following a keto diet, know that different people respond differently to sugar alcohol intake. They’re typically not recommended as they can kick your body out of its ketosis state.

  • Strange Mouthfeel

Have you ever experienced a minty and cold sensation on your tongue when you chew sugar-free gum? This is due to sugar alcohols transferring heat to your tongue! Some find this attribute unpleasant and another reason to avoid eating foods with sugar alcohols.

stomach ache

Allulose: A Better Sugar Alternative

If you’re looking for a better alternative to sugar and sugar alcohols, you may want to check out allulose instead – it’s personally my favorite.

Allulose is a natural, plant-based, and keto-friendly sweetener. It’s often referred to as the ‘rare sugar’ since it’s naturally found in small amounts in foods like figs, raisins, and maple syrup. Allulose is the primary sweetener found in Munk Pack’s delicious and nutritious Keto Granola Bars and Keto Nut & Seed Bars

It is 70 percent as sweet as sugar but only contains 10 percent of the calories. [7] This means that allulose has virtually no impact on blood sugar or insulin levels and may even slow down the digestion of other high glycemic index carbs. [8]

Unlike sugar alcohols, allulose is keto-friendly, does not cause digestive problems, and does not have a strange mouthfeel. Whether or not you’re following a keto lifestyle, products sweetened with allulose are great additions to help you cut back on your sugar intake while enjoying the sweet things in life.

cut open fig

The Bottom Line

Although many sugar-free foods that contain sugar alcohols claim to be healthy, they aren’t always the better choice. If you do consume them, enjoy them in moderation. However, other newer generation sweeteners like allulose make it easier (and more delicious) than ever to reduce your sugar intake and still avoid the undesirable gastrointestinal effects associated with sugar alcohols.

What else would you like to know about sugar alcohols or allulose? Comment below and let me know!