Article By: Whittany Gibson, RDN
Whittany is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who specializes in bariatric nutrition counseling, providing education and support prior to and following weight loss surgery.
Sugar alcohols are becoming more and more popular as a sugar substitute in products labeled as “sugar free” or “no sugar added”. In the bariatric world, this is a hot topic following surgery as you may still want sweet-tasting foods, but at the same time, you don’t want the calories coming from carbs that sugary products typically contain. Let’s first dive into what sugar alcohols actually are.
1) What are sugar alcohols? Sugar alcohols are derived from natural sources like fruits and vegetables and other sources found in nature. They are added to many processed foods as sweeteners or bulking agents to improve texture or even to help retain moisture. The name can be confusing because sugar alcohols are not actually sugar but do resemble the chemical structure of sugar. They also do not contain ethanol which is found in alcoholic beverages, so there’s no alcohol like the name may imply. There are different types of sugar alcohols that have similar uses but vary in sweetness levels. Sugar alcohols are most commonly used in lower calorie and sweet-tasting products like baked goods, confections, hard candies, flavored jams and jellies, and oral care products. They are also used in protein supplements including protein shakes, flavored waters and sports drinks, and even protein bars like the BariMelts Crispy Chocolate Protein Bar! They are safe to consume, and their use in food products has helped many people with weight loss, weight management, and blood glucose control especially for those with diabetes.
2) What about calories? Unlike artificial sweeteners like Splenda, Sweet ‘n Low, or Equal that have no nutritional value or calories, sugar alcohols do provide a small amount of calories but about half of that of real sugar. On average, sugar alcohols have about 2.6 calories per gram compared to sugar that offers 4 calories per gram. The amount of calories is dependent on the type of sugar alcohol and can range from 1.5-3 calories per gram.
3) What are the different types of sugar alcohols?
Erythritol: Commonly found in calorie-reduced foods, candies, or bakery products, erythritol is the only sugar alcohol with no caloric value in comparison to others. This also means blood glucose and insulin levels are left essentially unaffected. Erythritol can also be added to oral care products as it helps fight bad bacteria and prevent tooth decay. Erythritol is found naturally in fruits and vegetables but is also commercially produced through the fermentation of corn.
Mannitol: This sugar alcohol occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables like pineapple, sweet potatoes, carrots, and asparagus and is also extracted from seaweed to use for food manufacturing. It has around 50-70 percent of the relative sweetness of sugar and has been shown to hang around in the intestines for longer compared to other sugar alcohols.
Xylitol: This sugar alcohol you will find commonly added as an ingredient in chewing gums and other oral care products. It has the same relative sweetness of sugar which is why it has gained so much popularity in food products as well. Additionally, xylitol is less likely to affect blood glucose than some of the other sugar alcohols. It can be processed via trees such as birch and other plant fibers from corncobs, straw, fruits, and vegetables.
Sorbitol: Sixty percent as sweet as sugar, sorbitol is found naturally in berries and fruits but is also commercially produced. It is commonly used in baked goods, frozen desserts, and hard candies to help reduce calories. Sorbitol has 2.6 calories per gram compared to sugar’s 4 calories per gram.
Maltitol: Giving more of a creamy texture to foods, maltitol can be commonly found in ice cream products, chocolate flavored desserts, and candies. This sugar alcohol can still affect blood glucose but not at the same level as sugar as it causes a slower rise and fall of blood sugar and is still considered a better option compared to sugar for weight control and for those with diabetes.
Lactitol: Often found in similar products as the other sugar alcohols, it has about 30-40 percent of the sweetness of sugar. It has a mild, sweet flavor with no aftertaste. Due to its low sweetness level, it is easily blended with sweeter tasting sugar alcohols. Lactitol only has about 2 calories per gram.
Isomalt: This sugar alcohol is 45-65 percent as sweet as sugar and is often used in hard candies, toffee, and cough drops due to its ability to maintain its sweetness during the heating process. Isomalt offers 2 calories per gram.
Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH): Produced by the partial hydrolysis of corn, these sugar alcohols are often used in similar products as other sugar alcohols like candies, baked goods, and oral rinses. The sweetness is about 40-90 percent that of sugar and offers 3 calories per gram.
4) How do I know if my product contains sugar alcohols? First, if a product is labeled as “sugar free” or “no sugar added”, there is a strong possibility there may be sugar alcohols added. Check your Nutrition Facts label under “Carbohydrates” and look for “Sugar Alcohol” and how many grams there are to the right. If only one sugar alcohol is added, you will find the specific name of the sugar alcohol. You may also find them listed in the ingredient list. Keep in mind, it is not mandatory but voluntary in most cases to add sugar alcohols to the nutrition label.
5) What are the disadvantages? There are no significant disadvantages to sugar alcohols if consumed in moderation. The key here is quantity. Small amounts of sugar alcohols in a protein bar, piece of gum, etc. are fine! Side effects of consuming large quantities (in grams) of sugar alcohols can include gastrointestinal symptoms like gas, bloating, or diarrhea, and some may cause a laxative effect for some people. It’s dependent on the person and how much is consumed. If you feel you are having these types of symptoms on a regular basis, check your labels and consume less of these products or have them less frequently. It is important to keep a food diary to identify food intolerances or sensitivities after bariatric surgery so you know exactly what the culprit might be. You don’t want to cut out any particular food groups or nutrient-rich products if you don’t truly know if that food is causing the issue.
BariMelts provides general recommendations, not to be construed as medical advice. Please consult your doctor.