Episode 143 – Are Sugar Alcohols Bad for Us?

Key Topics Covered

Sugar alcohols

What Are Sugar Alcohols?

  • Sugar alcohols are chemically similar to both sugars and alcohols, but they are neither sugar nor alcohol in the traditional sense.
  • They have a slightly different chemical structure. 
  • Most of them still contain calories, albeit less than sugar, and is a major differentiator from what we’d typically refer to as artificial sweeteners.
  • Sugar alcohols are added to foods to give them a sweet taste as an alternative to regular sugar. They are lower calorie, but are still sweet.
  • They have a range of calories from about half of sugar, down to almost none.

Calories (Per gram)

  • Sorbitol = 2.6.
  • Xylitol = 2.4
  • Maltitol = 2.1
  • Isomalt = 2.0
  • Mannitol = 1.6
  • Erythritol = 0.2

Downsides

They still increase blood glucose levels.

Blood glucose montior getting used on finger.
  • They contain calories and raise BGLs still, particularly the high-calorie ones.
  • They do this to a lesser extent than sugar, but it is an aspect that is often overlooked.

Bloating and other IBS issues.

  • Sugar alcohols often contribute to symptoms of bloating and other IBS-type symptoms.
  • This is particularly relevant if either 1) You have a large amount of them or 2) You are particularly sensitive. 
  • Sugar alcohols fall into the polyols section of the low FODMAP diet, and are limited in that approach. 
  • Research on this topic is tricky to interpret. For example, maltitol is a common trigger I have seen among clients. And products typically contain <10g maltitol.
  • But research has found that often >25g can be tolerated without issues. A few quick thoughts are:
  1. Some people are more sensitive than others.
  2. Most people have multiple triggers. Research done in a fasted state often is misrepresentative. Somebody having a protein bar containing maltitol in the afternoon is far more likely to experience symptoms than somebody having it on an empty stomach while also mixed in with other food, as these studies have often done. 

Sneaky Marketing

Atkins low carb bars.
  • In Australia, while sugar alcohols contain calories, they do not need to be listed in the protein, fats and carbs section.
  • Although they act similarly to carbohydrates in a way, they do not get displayed in the nutrition panel in that way. 
  • They do still have to be listed in the ingredients section. And their calories are still included in the calorie/kilojoule count.
  • But often low-carb products will use sugar alcohols so that they can look low carb, even though this still contains calories and raises blood glucose levels.

Potential Benefits 

  • Xylitol has solid evidence that it actually helps with your teeth. The mechanism is that it helps prevent dental caries by reducing plaque formation and bacterial adherence. 
  • Because sugar alcohols are lower calorie than sugar and have fewer calories, you could also argue that it is beneficial that some products use them instead of sugar. 

Summary

Sugar alcohols are mostly safe. But there are a few key points worth being aware of:

  • They often still contain calories.
  • They can raise BGLs.
  • They can contribute to bloating and other IBS-type symptoms.

Relevant Blogs / Resources

Blog Posts:

Studies: