When You Shouldn’t Use Sugar Alcohols
Since giving up sugar over a year ago and winning a battle against candida, I’ve talked a lot about alternative sweeteners (specifically sugar alcohols)…
- Are polyols. Their chemical structure partly resembles sugar and partly resembles alcohol — though they contain neither.
- Can be used as low-glycemic, low-calorie sugar substitutes.
- Are safe for diabetics and those who experience hypoglycemia and/or insulin resistance.
- Are prebiotic. They can feed good bacteria in the gut.
- Look like white sugar, but contain much fewer carbohydrates than white sugar.
Sugar alcohols are NOT…
- Artificial sweeteners. Do not confuse sugar alcohols with aspartame, sucralose, Splenda, etc. They are NOT the same thing!
- Sugar or alcohol. You can’t get drunk from consuming sugar alcohols.
- Harmful for those battling candida. They do not feed pathogenic organisms in the gut.
I have 2 other posts you should check out for more information about sugar alcohols — Sugar Alcohols: Are They Really Sugar’s Sweetest Alternative? and 5 Reasons Why I’m Using Alternative Sweeteners.
So how do you know if you should or shouldn’t use sugar alcohols? How do you know if they’re right for you?
Let’s tackle that!
Here’s how to know when you shouldn’t use sugar alcohols.
#1 — You have a major digestive issue, such as IBS.
Potential digestive upset is the common risk I have found when researching sugar alcohols. And symptoms are exacerbated in those who already suffer from a digestive issue, such as IBS or SIBO.
Sugar alcohols aren’t totally absorbed during digestion, so they ferment in the intestines. The fermentation produces gas, which may build up and result in bloating, flatulence, or discomfort (source).
If you already have a healthy, balanced gut, it’s very likely that you won’t react to sugar alcohols at all. Or you may react to one, but not to another, which is the case with me. Xylitol causes bloating and gas for me, while I experience no discomfort whatsoever from erythritol.
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. (Source.)
#2 — You follow a low-FODMAP diet.
FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligo-saccharides, Di-saccharides, Mono-saccharides And Polyols. Foods typically avoided on a low-FODMAP diet are onions/garlic, glutenous grains, stone fruits, most legumes, processed meats, and more. (Here’s a complete list of foods to avoid on the low-FODMAPs diet.)
A low-FODMAP diet is often very beneficial for those dealing with:
- IBS and other gastrointestinal disorders
- Autoimmune diseases such as eczema, rheumatoid arthritis, and MS
Sugar alcohols are one of the polyols — the “P” in FODMAP.
Polyols are naturally found in some fruits and vegetables. They are the primary component in alternative sweeteners — xylitol, sorbitol, maltitol, and manitol (source).
They can trigger symptoms in those with sensitive digestive systems — like people with IBS, Crohn’s, SIBO, and autoimmune diseases.
Large doses of polyols can cause problems in the gut because they are only partly absorbed by the small intestine. Because they remain undigested they pull water into the small and large bowel and are then rapidly fermented by intestinal bacteria resulting in distension of the gut, bloating and diarrhoea. So if you have a sensitive gut you will feel very uncomfortable if you eat a high dose of polyols. (Source.)
The amount of polyols you tolerate is as unique as you are. A teaspoon of a sugar alcohol might trigger diarrhea, bloating, and gas if you’re very sensitive. Or, you might be able to handle a small slice of cake that’s been lightly sweetened with a sugar alcohol, assuming the other ingredients are also low-FODMAP.
Avoid sugar alcohols until you’re in remission or you speak with your health practitioner if you know polyols already cause you digestive distress.
#3 — You have dogs.
Xylitol is a huge concern on this front. It is toxic and deadly to dogs. It triggers a severe insulin release, resulting in hypoglycemia and even liver failure (source). We keep all xylitol products out of our house for this reason (and because they cause us digestive upset, too).
Erythritol, maltitol, and sorbitol are not toxic to dogs, but keep them away from your pets to be safe.
#4 — You have an addiction to sweets.
How do you know if you have an addiction to sweets?
- You can’t go more than a few hours or a whole day without something sweet.
- A meal doesn’t feel complete without dessert.
- You use sweet treats and dessert as rewards for yourself.
- You justify eating sweets (ie. you feel you have to explain yourself).
- Symptoms, like a headache or irritability, pop up when you go too long without sugar.
- You would rather eat sweets than real food and most often crave simple carbs (white bread, pasta, pastries, etc.)
- Once you start eating sweets, you usually eat more than you intended.
- You reach for sweets during stressful situations.
So, if you could honestly check off 3 or 4 of those attributes, sugar alcohols aren’t going to fix your problem.
The best way to get over a sugar addiction is not by eating different types of sweets — even if those sweets aren’t adding to your glycemic load — but to stop eating sweets altogether.
Sugar addiction is HARD to break. When my husband quit sugar cold turkey, he experienced actual, physical illness. He was accustomed to sugary desserts, simple carbs, and no less than 48 ounces of sodas a day.
Quitting sugar was a beast for us both, but especially for him. He experienced sharp headaches and vomiting as his body detoxed from sugar.
The worst thing I could have done would have been to make him a big erythritol-sweetened cake!
Once you break the habit, you’ll find that the cravings slowly dissipate. Eventually, you can slowly introduce sweets again and try using stevia and/or sugar alcohols as your primary sweeteners.
#5 — You’re sensitive or allergic to corn.
Several brands of sugar alcohols are corn-derived. Fermenting the natural sugars in corn produces erythritol. Xylitol is derived from corn and birch wood. You can find birch-only derived xylitol.
What’s The Bottom Line?
You shouldn’t use sugar alcohols if you need to work on your gut health or need to avoid polyols. You shouldn’t use sugar alcohols if you’re addicted to sugar and don’t know how to eat sweets as occasional treats in moderation. Don’t use xylitol if you have dogs.
Every source I found basically said the same thing: if you’re going to use sugar alcohols, erythritol seems to be the safest option in terms of digestibility and caloric- and glycemic-load. It appears to be better for human digestion, and it’s non-toxic for pets.
I haven’t discussed sorbitol, mannitol, and maltitol because they’re most often used in commercial products. Check the ingredient lists of sugar-free or diabetic-friendly packages of food. Maltitol, however, seems to be the one sugar alcohol that causes the most digestive upset — hence its prefix mal = bad.
I can’t tell you if sugar alcohols are right for you. Speak to a naturopath or other practitioner and ask questions if you still have concerns. Do your research! Make the best decision for you and your family.
What Do We Use?
I recently discovered a blend called Lakanto (erythritol and monk fruit extract). Wilderness Family Naturals has created Coco Monkey (a blend of inulin, freeze-dried coconut water, and stevia). I’ve not used either of these blends, so I can’t speak to their taste, flavor, or how to measure them into recipes. I’m fairly certain you can’t substitute Coco Monkey cup for cup though.