Healthy Tahoe: Sugar alcohols, what are they? Are they safe?

Lynn Norton, RDN

Over the millennia, sweet foods have enabled humans to survive; sugar in the form of glucose is the primary fuel our bodies use as energy, and adding sugar to food acts as a preservative. Most people would likely report sugar as the pleasurable taste in food.

Lynn Norton

That pleasant, sweet taste has led to thousands of food, beverage, and snack products oozing with refined and purified plant sugars such as corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, white cane, and beet sugar (“sucrose”). While tasty, consuming sugar increases insulin levels, which can contribute to major problems like obesity and diabetes, along with dental cavities.

Consumer demand for alternate sources of sugar has led to the development of sugar substitutes. Let’s demystify one—”Polyols,” also known as “Sugar Alcohols.”

Contrary to the name, sugar alcohols are not sugar nor do they contain alcohol. Some sugar alcohols come from plant products such as fruits and vegetables, but most are artificial.

Sugar alcohols are used as a substitute for sugar in a wide range of food products including chocolates, ice cream, baked goods, chewing gum, candy, mints, cough drops, and even toothpaste. Common names for sugar alcohols include sorbitol, xylitol, isomalt, and mannitol.

As a sugar substitute, they possess approximately 2 calories/gram which is about half the calories of regular sugar and other sweeteners like brown sugar, honey or syrups. Other benefits include fewer calories, easier blood sugar management, and less dental risk.

While sugar alcohols can be a safe modification to your diet, they are not a slam dunk, and should be consumed in moderation. Unlike sugars naturally found in plant and dairy products, sugar alcohols are not digested fully, and overconsumption can cause mild to moderate gas and bloating.

Since sugar alcohols are not truly sugars by a chemist’s definition, they are not included in the total grams of sugar on a product’s label. A food manufacturer can claim “sugar-free” on the label with sugar alcohols present, if no other sugars are in the food item. You’ll often see this on normally high-sugar foods, like baked goods, candy, and gums.

In summary, modest amounts of products containing sugar alcohols can be eaten as part of a healthy diet. Speak with your health care provider or a registered dietitian about a healthy diet that supports your unique condition and lifestyle.

Lynn Norton is a Registered Dietitian with Barton Health, offering personalized nutrition therapy and counseling services based on each person’s unique needs and goals. Virtual, 1-on-1 counseling is available. To schedule, call 530-543-5824.

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