Sugar alcohols are a group of sweeteners also known as “polyols” and are used as food additives.
They occur naturally in small amounts in fruits and vegetables including berries, apples, and plums. For large-scale commercial use, they are manufactured from common sugars. While they are chemically very similar to sugars, they are less sweet and have fewer calories (1).
Sugar alcohols are used as sugar substitutes to allow food manufacturers to make food products with lower amounts of sugar and calories. Sugar alcohols have been promoted as useful sugar substitutes for diabetics. Unlike sucrose and glucose which can cause blood sugar to rise quicker, sugar alcohols do not produce significant changes in blood glucose concentration.
PRO TIP: Once absorbed they are converted to energy by processes that require little or no insulin. People with diabetes, however, should consult their physician or other health professionals about the usefulness of sugar alcohols in their diet before increasing the amount of foods they eat that contain these substances.
Sugar alcohols are also resistant to metabolism by the bacteria in the mouth which break down sugars and starches to release decay-causing acids. As a result, sugar alcohols in general are considered not to promote tooth decay. Studies have indicated that xylitol in particular may actually help to prevent tooth decay……AMAZING
Sugar alcohols and your gut
As stated above, sugar alcohols are resistant to digestion and so they act like dietary fiber. Fiber(s) are nothing more than specific carbohydrates that can’t be digested by humans so they pass through the gastrointestinal tract unchanged. Our digestive enzymes simply can’t break them apart. Hey, nobody’s perfect, but turns out this is a good thing.
This resistance to digestion is the very reason fiber gives you health benefits like improved bowel movements. Even though your enzymes can’t break fiber down, your intestinal bacteria love to go to town on them. The bacteria ferment them and use the fiber as food. This ensures you’ll maintain healthy levels of good bacteria in your small intestines and colon.
Sugar alcohols are one of the FODMAPs. The ‘P’ in FODMAP stands for ‘polyols’. Sugar alcohols, or polyols, will cause digestive issues in everyone if consumed in large quantities. For others with IBS or other digestive issues, sugar alcohols can be less tolerated and cause more problems.
PRO TIP: even thought sugar alcohols are a technically a sugar molecule joined to an alcohol molecule, they do not contain ethanol and therefore sugar alcohols are safe for everyone, even those with a history of alcohol use disorder. No Problem!!
Sugar alcohols permitted for use as food additives in Canada are:
- hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
- maltitol syrup
- sorbitol syrup
Possible digestive woes
As mentioned above, sugar alcohols can cause problems for anyone with digestive issues. Actually, they can cause problems for anyone if over consumed. They are not a free ingredient. Eat too many sugar-free candies made with sugar alcohols and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll be running for the nearest toilet before you know what hit you.
Why? because they can’t be digested properly. When they make their way to the large intestine, they are fermented big time by the trillions of bacteria that call the colon home.
Over consuming them will cause ++++ gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
The worst offenders are sorbitol and maltitol (2). In fact, the reason why prunes and prune juice are superstars when it comes to promoting regular bowel movements is because prunes (dried plums) have lots of sorbitol. Eating sorbitol-rich foods, like prunes, in reasonable amounts typically won’t give you diarrhea unless you eat lots and lots of them . The main problem with sorbitol is when it’s concentrated in foods as a sweetener.
Better tolerated sugar alcohols are xylitol and erythritol. They are less likely to cause tummy upset. If you’re looking for a better tolerated sugar substitute, check out my post on sucralose-free SPLENDA Stevia No Calorie Sweetener. Is It Gut Friendly?
What to do?
Sugar alcohols are popular low calorie sweeteners. They are not artificial sweeteners like sucralose or aspartame so if you’re concerned about that, don’t be. They are widely used as a food ingredient so over-consuming can happen without you knowing about it. If you have digestive health issues or have experienced unexplained bloating and gas, be sure to start reading ingredient lists on packaged and prepared foods.
While they are well tolerated, high amounts of some sugar alcohols, such as sorbitol and maltitol, may cause bloating and diarrhea. Studies have shown however, that many people can and do have issues when sorbitol and maltitol are consumed at levels well below those considered ‘safe’, e.g. the amount not considered to cause gut issues (gas and loose stools). Like anything, tolerance varies big time so be vigilant!!
Because erythritol is easly absorbed and doesn’t hang out in the digestive tract, it produces the fewest side effects of all the sugar alcohols. For this reason, erythritol is a better choice if you have IBS or navigating a low FODMAP diet.