Blue, pink, yellow, green, orange—there is a whole rainbow of colors for sugar substitutes offered today. The term “sugar substitutes” refers to high intensity sweeteners, artificial sweeteners, non-nutritive sweeteners, and other low-calorie sweeteners. Then there are sugar alcohols, such as erythritol, xylitol, and mannitol. Sugar alcohols are becoming more popular as “keto-friendly” sweeteners. But what are they? And are they a good option for people with diabetes?
What Are Sugar Alcohols?
Most sugar substitutes taste much sweeter than sugar. Since they are so sweet, only a tiny amount is needed to give the same sweetness of sugar, with almost no calories.
Unlike other “high-intensity” sweeteners, sugar alcohols are less sweet than sugar, but they have fewer calories per gram, making them a “low-calorie” sweetener.
Don’t let the word “alcohol” confuse you, sugar alcohols are not the same as the alcohol that causes you to “get a buzz.” The word “alcohol,” in this case, is talking about to the shape of the molecule – so don’t worry, it’s just a chemistry thing.
How Are Sugar Alcohols Used?
Sugar alcohols are not usually used in home cooking or in packets at the coffee counter, but they can be found in many “sugar free” foods including chewing gum, candy, ice cream, and fruit spreads. They are also often used as a sweetener in toothpaste, mouthwash, and cough drops.
Products labelled “diet,” “sugar-free,” or “no sugar added” can also have sugar alcohols in the ingredients. If a product has sugar alcohols, you will see “Sugar Alcohol” listed under Total Carbohydrates on the Nutrition Facts label. You can then scan the ingredient list to see which sugar alcohols were added.
Common sugar alcohols that you may find are xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, and maltitol (they usually end in the letters –ol, as does sugar “alcohol”, which can be helpful to quickly spot them in the ingredient list).
Do Sugar Alcohols Raise Blood Sugar?
Sugar Alcohols are a type of carbohydrate, and they can raise blood sugar. As you’ll notice in the Nutrition Facts label to the right, “sugar-free” foods that contain sugar alcohols are not carbohydrate- or calorie-free!
However, sugar alcohols are processed by the body in a different way than other carbohydrates, and some may raise your blood sugar by a little while others may not increase it at all.
For example, erythritol is a type of sugar alcohol that may not increase your blood sugar. For this reason, it has become very popular as an ingredient in low-carb “keto” foods. Erythritol can even be found in some stores and can be used for home cooking, so you may also see it as an ingredient in low-carb dessert recipes.
What Might Sugar Alcohols Do in Other Parts of The Body?
Unlike regular sugar, sugar alcohols do not promote cavities. As a matter of fact, xylitol, a type of sugar alcohol seen in sugar-free chewing gum, may help prevent cavities.
Many sugar alcohols can cause gas, bloating, and stomach aches, especially when eaten in large amounts, and some people may be more sensitive to this effect than others.
If you have an upset stomach when eating “sugar-free” or other foods sweetened with sugar alcohols, read the ingredients to see what kind of sugar alcohol is in the product. You may want to avoid foods that have that type of sugar alcohol, or cut back on how much you eat in one sitting.
Sugar alcohols are safe to eat and may be a good option for people with diabetes. However, they can cause stomach issues when eaten in large amounts, and some sugar alcohols can raise blood sugar.
“Sugar-free” does not mean carbohydrate-free! Read the label to see the carbohydrate content of sugar-free foods.
Sugar-free foods can fit in your eating plan as long as you count the carbohydrate. Check blood sugar 1 ½- 2 hours after eating a food with sugar alcohols to see how your blood sugar changes.
As always, your dietitian or diabetes health-care team can help you decide if including any type of sugar substitutes in your eating plan is the best choice for you.
Tami Ross is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and nationally recognized speaker, consultant, and health and nutrition writer. She is author of the best-selling book, What Do I Eat Now?. You can follow Tami on Twitter @tamirossrd or visit her website, www.tamirossrd.com