What are sugar alcohols?

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Sugar alcohols, blood sugar impact and net carbs

Have a look at most protein bars and other sugar-free snacks and you’ll probably find words like maltitol, sorbitol and xylitol. These are sugar alcohols and you can recognize them because they end in “-tol”.

List of ingredients

What are sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate called polyols. Chemically, they are similar to both sugar and alcohol, but they’re neither sugar nor alcohol.

They are less sweet than sucrose (sugar), with maltitol being as close to three quarters as sweet as sugar.

Sugar and maltitol chemical structure

They’re incompletely absorbed by the body, so they have fewer calories (0-3kcal/g) than sugar (4 kcal/g). Most common sugar alcohols are sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, maltitol, maltitol syrup, lactitol, erythritol, isomalt and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates.

How are sugar alcohols made?

Polyols are naturally present in plants, from which they are extracted and manufactured. For example, sorbitol is made from glucose, lactitol from lactose, maltitol from corn syrup, although it can also be extracted from wheat (still gluten free though).

Image of corn cartoon

Why use sugar alcohols?

Since polyols (sugar alcohols) aren’t completely absorbed by the body, like sugar, their blood sugar impact is lessened (used with people with diabetes). They also don’t promote tooth decay, hence why being used to sweeten chewing gum. Xylitol actually inhibits bacterial growth in the mouth.

Besides adding sweet taste, they add bulk and texture to foods, avoid browing during heating and retain moisture in foods.

Sugar alcohols are sometimes used along with other artificial sweeteners like sucralose (Splenda). Many protein bars use a combination of sucralose and sugar alcohols in diverse amounts.

Are sugar alcohols dangerous?

They don’t make you drunk, but they can cause intestinal discomfort, like gas, cramping and even laxative in some people. Pay attention to the list of ingredients, consume small amount of the protein bar, snack or candy that has sugar alcohols and you’ll be the judge for your tolerance.

How do I check for sugar alcohols?

They will end in a “-tol” suffix, like maltitol and xylitol. Sugar alcohols can be included in the total carbohydrate amount or on a separate line for sugar alcohols. However, if the product is announced as “sugar-free” or “no added sugar”, then the label must show the sugar alcohol amount in separate.

Are sugar alcohols worth it?

Erythritol is (see chart below), Maltitol perhaps not. Maltitol has 75% of the sweeteness of sugar, and 75% of the blood sugar impact of sugar. It’s basic advantage is having less calories than sugar.

The following is a table with the glycemix index of sugar alcohols and sucrose (table sugar).

Sugar and Sugar Alchohols sweeteness and glycemic index

INGREDIENT SWEETENESS GLYCEMIC INDEX CALORIES/GRAM
Sucrose (sugar) 100% 60 4
Maltitol syrup 75% 52 3
HSH 33% 39 2.8
Maltitol 75% 36 2.7
Xylitol 100% 13 2.5
Isomalt 55% 9 2.1
Sorbitol 60% 9 2.5
Lactitol 35% 6 2
Mannitol 60% 0 1.5
Erythritol 70% 0 0.2

Sugar alcohol summary

  • Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrates called “polyol” with a chemical structure similar to alcohol and sugar, hence their name.
  • They add sweetness to foods and function as thickeners, providing them with bulk and texture.
  • Common sugar alcohols used are sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, maltitol, maltitol syrup, lactitol, erythritol, isomalt and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates.
  • Calories content ranges from zero to 3 calories per gram (table sugar has 4Kcal/g).
  • Most sugar alcohols are less sweet than sucrose (table sugar), with maltitol and xylitol being 3/4th as sweet.
  • Do not raise blood glucose levels as high as sugar does because they are poorly absorsed by the body (contrary to sugar).*
  • Some people experience bloating gas and in some cases diarrhea when consuming sugar alcohols.
  • They are some times used in conjunction with artificial sweeteners, such as sucralose (Splenda).

*Erythritol is an exception as it is absorbed in the small intestine but unchanged in the body and removed in urine. Erythritol is the safest sugar alcohol. ^Go up^

About jon

Jon is a self-confessed protein bar addict that loves writing about protein bars, snacks and desserts. He is a former marketer turned into a blogger. Oh, and he loves writing in 3rd person.

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