Sugar Alcohols: Are They Really Sugar’s Sweetest Alternative?
If you were hoping I was about to explain a super sweet and boozy cocktail, I’m sorry to disappoint. 😉
Instead I want to talk about some of those words you may have read on nutrition labels and wondered if they were really ok ingredients.
You see, I’m a big believer: if it’s on a nutrition label and you can’t pronounce it or don’t know what it is, DON’T BUY IT.
I saw words like xylitol and erythritol on food labels and quickly put down whatever product I was holding, believing these to be unnatural, and therefore unhealthy, products.
Now that I know what they are, I’m not afraid of them! In fact, I believe they are the sweetest alternative to sugar and natural sweeteners!
I hope to help you understand what sugar alcohols are and why I believe them to be completely safe for my family.
What Are Sugar Alcohols?
The term sugar alcohol is kinda misleading because these products contain neither sugar nor alcohol.
Also known as polyols, sugar alcohols get their name because part of their chemical structure resembles sugar and part resembles alcohol. They are basically hybrids of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules. Polyols occur naturally in plants, like apples and pears, and vegetables.
Sugar alcohols — xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, and maltitol — are used as sugar substitutes because they look and taste very much like white sugar, but they contain much fewer carbohydrates than sugar. They provide sweetness without raising the blood sugar, so they are considered safe for diabetics and people with blood sugar problems, including insulin resistance and hypoglycemia.
Sugar alcohols are, for the most part, a very healthy alternative to sugar, honey, coconut sugar, and maple syrup — hence, they are called alternative sweeteners.
What Sugar Alcohols Are Not
Sugar alcohols ARE NOT the same as artificial sweeteners.
Artificial sweeteners are man-made laboratory experiments that have proven to cause detrimental health effects when consumed over long periods of time.
Saccharin = Sweet-n-Low: has an unpleasant bitter aftertaste and is a known carcinogen. It is found in many diet drinks and some toothpaste.
Aspartame = Equal: contributes to neurotoxicity and causes headaches, seizures, and mood disorders. Several studies also link aspartame to cancer. It is found in diet drinks and “sugar-free” products like jam, ketchup, candies, and pudding.
Sucralose = Splenda: can cause skin rashes, agitation, dizziness, diarrhea, muscle aches, intestinal cramping, and bladder pain. Splenda has been shown to decrease the size of the thymus gland and enlarge the livers and kidneys of rodents. It is commonly found in packets on restaurant tables, low-fat flavored yogurt, reduced-calorie baked goods, and coffee creamer.
I encourage you to avidly read labels of any packaged food you buy and be on the lookout for these ingredients. They are NOT healthy alternatives to sugar.
Sugar Alcohols and Blood Sugar
Sugar alcohols make it possible for just about anyone to enjoy sweets without causing a rise in blood sugar. It is because sugar alcohols are very low on the glycemic index that this is possible.
The glycemic index is is a measure of how quickly foods raise blood sugar levels.
Foods that are high-glycemic are those which cause the rapidest rise in blood sugar and are very sweet foods: fruits like dates, figs, pineapples, and mangoes, cane sugar and baked goods containing cane sugar, refined “white” carbs like white rice, white bread, and white potatoes, and natural sweeteners like honey, coconut sugar, and maple syrup.
Foods that are low-glycemic are those which minimally raise blood sugar or don’t raise it quickly. To be considered low-glycemic, the food must be no higher than 55 on the glycemic index: Non-starchy veggies, oats, beans and lentils, all animal proteins and fats, unsweetened dairy products, berries, and some fruits like plums, grapefruit, and peaches.
To compare the glycemic index rating of sugar alcohols vs. actual sugar (sucrose), take a look at this chart.
Erythritol, Mannitol, Lactitol, Sorbitol, Isomalt, Xylitol, Maltitol, and Polyglycitol are all sugar alcohols.
Fructose = fruit sugar. It is found in all fruits as well as honey. Sugar is plain, white sugar. Glucose is blood sugar.
As you can see the sugar alcohols are WAY below sugar and glucose on the chart.
As a frame of reference, watermelon = 72, dairy milk = 32, and lentils = 21.
Sugar alcohols, therefore, have little to no effect on blood sugar, so they are ideal for diabetics and pre-diabetics as well as those with metabolic disorders. You can enjoy baked goods, ice cream, and even milk shakes without worrying about spiking your blood sugar or adding needless inches to your waistline!
Do Sugar Alcohols Have Other Advantages?
Although their greatest advantage is the ability to provide sweetness with few calories and very little, if any, effect on the blood sugar, there are other benefits of sugar alcohols that set them apart from sugar and natural sweeteners:
- They do not contribute to tooth decay. Xylitol and erythritol can actually help in the prevention of tooth decay. This is why they are commonly found in toothpaste and chewing gum.
- They are prebiotic — they feed the good bacteria in the gut.
- In animal studies, sugar alcohols have been shown to benefit the bone and skin health.
- They do not feed pathogenic organisms (candida and others) in the gut. Because pathogenic bacteria and yeasts thrive on a steady diet of sugar (even sugar from fruit and natural sweeteners), using sugar alcohols actually helps to starve and kill off these harmful organisms.
But, What About The Risks?
The main concern with sugar alcohols is that they can cause gastrointestinal upset, especially when consumed in large quantities.
Sugar alcohols are not digested in the small bowel, so they pass on to the colon, where they are are metabolized by the gut bacteria. (This is their prebiotic effect.)
The most common symptoms of sensitivity to sugar alcohols are gas and bloating and diarrhea. If you have IBS or are sensitive to FODMAPs, it’s probably best for you to avoid sugar alcohols until you are able to heal your gut.
Digestive upset seems to be most common with sorbitol and maltitol, moderate with xylitol, and least common with erythritol. Xylitol caused bloating and gas for both of us. We do not have any experience with sorbitol or maltitol — however several sources report that sorbitol really has no other health benefits, and maltitol is higher on the glycemic index and is the most difficult of the sugar alcohols to digest.
Xylitol is also toxic to dogs and can cause hypoglycemia, liver failure, and seizures. Our pets are beloved members of our family, and we don’t want to risk them getting into treats sweetened with xylitol.
So Which One Do We Use?
Erythritol! And here’s why:
- It is not toxic to dogs.
- Of all the sugar alcohols, it is least likely to cause gas, bloating, or other digestive upset. Studies are showing that up to 90% of erythritol is digested in the small intestine, so there is virtually nothing to make it into the large intestine to ferment and cause gas. We have found this to be true.
- The other sugar alcohols are low-calorie. Erythritol has no calories.
- It is the lowest of all the sugar alcohols on the glycemic index. This is very important to me, as I am hypoglycemic and diabetes and heart disease run in my family.
- It tastes the most like sugar. We mix our erythritol with powdered stevia extract and get results almost identical to sugar in baked goods!
Wrapping Up The Sweetness
All treats, whether sweetened naturally with honey or maple syrup or alternatively with a sugar alcohol, are meant to be enjoyed in moderation.
I am happy to have found a way for my family and myself to enjoy sweet treats without the harmful effects of sugar on our bodies.
As I work toward further healing my gut, I love that I don’t have to be deprived of many of my favorite foods. I just swap the sweetener and carry on!
What about you?