With obesity rates on the rise, low sugar and sugar-free foods have been all the rage for years. Manufacturers have been adding sugar substitutes and natural sweeteners to their products to give them a sweet kick (and market appeal) without packing on the calories. Sugar alcohols are one such low-cal sugar substitute being used by consumers to help them reach their weight loss goals. But are foods with sugar alcohols the truly healthy and effective way to go when trying to meet your weight loss needs?
What are Sugar Alcohols?
Short and sweet, sugar alcohols (also known as polyols) are naturally-occurring carbohydrates found in fruits and vegetables. Sugar alcohols can also be manufactured artificially. Viewed as a “less intense” food sweetener, sugar alcohols generally aren’t as sweet as sugar. The FDA regulates the use of artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols.
What separates sugar alcohols from many sweeteners? Well, for starters, sugar alcohols do contain calories. But they’re considered a desirable alternative to sugar because they contain about half of the calories that sugar does. There are different types of sugar alcohols, but they are relatively easy to pinpoint on nutrition labels as most sugar alcohols end with the letters “-ol.”
Also worth noting is the fact that sugar alcohols aren’t actually alcoholic. Alcoholic beverages contain ethanol, and you won’t find a trace of ethanol in sugar alcohols. They get their name from their chemical structure, similar to the chemical make-up of both sugar and alcohol.
What are Sugar Alcohols Used For?
The popularity of sugar alcohols is on the rise, and many people are starting to explore their use in their own kitchens and home cooked cuisine. But, more frequently, you’ll typically find these sweeteners in processed foods and other products, such as frozen desserts, baked foods, candy, chocolate, gum, pancake syrups and frozen fruit. They’re even used to sweeten non-food items like mouthwash, breath mints, toothpaste, throat lozenges and cough syrups. Typically, sugar alcohols replace sugar on an equal basis, cup for cup.
To find out if the food product you’re consuming contains sugar alcohols, just read the food label. You can expect them to be listed either as “sugar alcohols” or under the specific type of sugar alcohol, such as “xylitol,” “sorbitol,” “isomalt,” and “erythritol.”
The purpose of sugar alcohols is often to add sweetness, texture and bulk to foods, without ramping up the calorie content. What’s more, they keep foods moist, prevent them from browning when they’re heated up, and also add a “cooling sensation” to food products when they are eaten.
Why Do Manufacturers Use Sugar Alcohols as Sweeteners?
Manufacturers will often use sugar alcohols as a sweetener because they don’t become less sweet when they’re heated, like many artificial sweeteners do. The surface of products containing sugar alcohols don’t become as sticky as products made with sugar, because they don’t absorb water like sugar. Interestingly, sugar alcohols are also used because they don’t encourage the growth of bacteria and mold. And finally, sugar alcohol combos can be combined with either sugar or artificial sweeteners to give food a likable taste, texture and appearance.
Like all sugar substitutes, sugar alcohols have their pros and cons for weight loss. Take a look at some of the benefits and some of the potential downsides of eating foods containing sugar alcohols.
Pros of Sugar Alcohols for Weight Loss and Other Benefits
Safe for people with Diabetes. Diabetics can consume sugar alcohols. Unlike normal sugar, sugar alcohols require little or no insulin for metabolism. Like carbohydrates, sugar alcohols can raise blood sugar levels, but because the body absorbs them more slowly and incompletely, they have less of an impact than sugar does on a person’s blood sugar levels.
Sugar alcohols also have fewer calories than sugar (roughly 2 calories per gram). If you’re a diabetic, consult your doctor about how to safely include foods containing sugar alcohols into your meal plan or weight loss program.
Superior dental health. Unlike sugar, which can take a toll on your pearly whites, sugar alcohols don’t speed up tooth decay because they aren’t metabolized by cavity-producing bacteria. Interestingly, sugar alcohols impact not only your teeth but also your taste buds. Different varieties of sugar alcohols have different levels of sweetness, ranging from half as sweet to just as sweet as sugar.
Weight loss friendly. Sugar alcohols can help you reach your weight loss goals. They may have calories, but sugar alcohols contain far less calories than sugar. As low calorie sweeteners, many people consider sugar alcohols a smart choice if weight loss is the goal and if you want to reduce your caloric intake. Sugar alcohols contain 0.2 to 3 calories per gram, whereas sugar contains 4 calories per gram. In the long run, this difference is significant to weight loss hopefuls who don’t want to give up their sweet tooth.
The Potential “Cons” of Sugar Alcohols
The FDA regulates sugar alcohols as food additives and deems them “Generally Recognized as Safe.” However, some health concerns have been recognized, so be aware of the following.
Don’t overdo it. When it comes to sugar alcohols, you may pay some consequences if you go overboard. When sugar alcohols are eaten in large amounts (over 50 grams for most, but some are effected by as little as 10 grams), they can have a laxative effect. This means less-than-happy ramifications for the consumer’s health, including diarrhea, bloating and intestinal gas. So if you’re going to consume food products containing sugar alcohols, use your judgement and mind your portions.
They can still effect your blood sugar. Consuming an excessive amount of sugar alcohols can increase your blood sugar levels. This negates the benefit of better blood sugar regulation for diabetics. Keep in mind that they only make for diabetes-friendly alternatives if eating in small amounts.
Sugar alcohols are not calorie-free. While they contain less calories than standard sugar, they still contain calories that must be factored in to your weight loss plan. So, like most other foods, remain conscious that you aren’t consuming more than you burn.
In the future, you can expect to find your grocery store aisles stocked with even more manufactured and processed foods containing sugar alcohols, from yogurt, to canned fruit, to pie-filling and cape-frosting. Arming yourself with information about them will allow you to make the best choices for yourself, so that you can reach your weight loss goals wisely.