Sugar Alcohols: A Guide To Natural Alternative Sweeteners
You might have seen these labels down the grocery aisles: “sugar-free” or “no sugar added.” What kind of sweetener tastes as sweet as sugar without the added calories?
In this blog, you’ll learn everything you need to know about sugar alcohols and their health benefits.
What are sugar alcohols?
Let’s talk about the name first. Under the nutritional facts, these sweeteners are named such to make them more consumer-friendly. They have a chemical structure similar to both sugar and alcohol. However, unlike regular alcohol, they don’t contain ethanol.
Also known as polyols, sugar alcohols are used as sweeteners and bulking agents. They’re extracted from plant products, particularly fruits and berries. Compared to other sugar substitutes, they contain fewer calories, making them a perfect substitute for people cutting on their calorie intake or people with diabetes.
How exactly do they work? We know that our bodies need insulin to metabolize carbohydrates and convert them to a simple form of sugar — glucose. This is because most of the cells in our body can only use this more simple form of sugar.
Unlike other sugar substitutes, sugar alcohols are converted to glucose more slowly, and they don’t require as much insulin to be metabolized. Therefore, the release of glucose in the bloodstream won’t be drastic. What’s more, our pancreas won’t work on overdrive to produce insulin for us to metabolize sugar alcohols.
They started out as substitutes for people with special health needs, but over time, they became a popular choice for the general public. Even you may be consuming them without you realizing it. Some of the most commonly used ones are erythritol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH), and isomalt.
Common types of sugar alcohols
It is the most common type of sugar alcohol and is often used in sugar-free chewing gums, mints, and other oral care products. It contains 40% less sugar but tastes as sweet as regular sugar.
Considered to have an excellent taste, erythritol is a product of cornstarch fermentation. It has 70% of the real sugar but with 5% fewer calories.
Known for its smooth mouthfeel and cool taste, it’s commonly found in jelly spread and soft candy.
It has 90% sweetness with almost 50% fewer calories, but it’s still not the healthiest of the sugar alcohols. Because your body can rapidly absorb maltitol, it can still cause sugar spikes.
Mannitol is naturally found in pineapples, olives, asparagus, sweet potatoes, and carrots. It has 50-70% sweetness of sugar but lingers in the intestines, causing bloating and diarrhea.
Benefits of sugar alcohols
Because sugar alcohols contain fewer calories, they don’t cause rapid spikes in the blood sugar level. This raise in your body’s sugar level is measured by the glycemic index (GI). If you consume foods with a high GI, you’re more likely to develop obesity and other metabolic health problems.
Unlike other sweeteners, the glycemic index of most sugar alcohols is zero. Maltitol has a GI of 36, which is still low compared to regular sugar.
They also don’t cause tooth decay as much — which is why they’re a common ingredient in gums and toothpaste. Oral bacteria feed on the sugar you consume, and when they multiply, they secrete acids that erode the protective enamel of your teeth. Xylitol in particular is consumed by oral bacteria. Only, they can’t metabolize it. It clogs their metabolic machinery and disrupting their growth.
Sugar alcohols can also add texture to foods, making them retain moisture better and prevent them from browning during the heating process.
There you have it. Sugar alcohols are generally better for your health than regular sugars, but you still need to check the specific benefits of each sugar alcohol to choose the best one for your needs.