SP Premium

What Are Sugar Alcohols?

If you spend any time looking at nutrition labels, you’ve probably noticed some intriguing ingredients in sweet foods that are touted as diet-friendly, sugar-free, low-carb or even formulated for people with diabetes. One ingredient, known as sugar alcohol, is a special type of sugar replacement that is frequently found in soft drinks, gums, cookies and sugar-free candy. Ever wonder what sugar alcohol is doing in these supposedly healthy foods? You're not alone!

What Are Sugar Alcohols? 

The term "sugar alcohol" is very misleading. Sugar alcohols get their name from their unique chemical structure, which resembles both sugar and alcohol. But they're neither sugars nor alcohols. In fact, sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate that sweetens foods, but with half the calories of sugar. There are several specific types of sugar alcohols (usually ending with the letters "-ol"). When reading a food label, the following ingredients are actually sugar alcohols:
  • Erythritol
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
  • Isomalt
  • Lactitol
  • Maltitol
  • Mannitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol
Look familiar? You'll find sugar alcohols in a wide variety of foods (gums, pancake syrups, candies, ice creams, baked goods and fruit spreads), health and beauty products (toothpastes, mouthwashes and breath mints), and even medicines (cough syrups, cough drops and throat lozenges). In the near future, they may be found in pie fillings, cake frostings, canned fruit, beverages, yogurt and tabletop sweeteners.

Why Use Sugar Alcohols?

You may wonder why manufacturers would put sugar alcohols in foods and other products, or why people might seek them out. Here are a few reasons why consumers choose these products:
  • Fewer calories. Sugar alcohols contain fewer calories (0.2 to 3 calories per gram) than sugar (4 calories per gram), making them a diet-friendly choice for people who want to limit their caloric intake, but still enjoy sweet foods.
  • Safe for diabetics. Sugar alcohols are absorbed more slowly (and incompletely) by the body. Unlike regular sugar, they require little or no insulin for metabolism. *People with diabetes should consult their physician, dietitian or other health professional about incorporating sugar alcohols into their daily meal plans.
  • Better dental health. Sugar alcohols do not promote tooth decay since they are not metabolized by the bacteria that produce dental cavities.
  • Fewer drug interactions. Sugar alcohols do not react with the pharmacologic ingredients in medicines as much as sugar sometimes can.
  • Individual tastes. The different types of sugar alcohols vary in sweetness, from being about half as sweet to equally sweet as sugar.
In addition to consumer desires, sugar alcohols also appeal to manufacturers. Here's why: 
  • Sugar alcohols do not lose their sweetness when heated, though many artificial sweeteners do.
  • Sugar alcohols do not absorb water like sugar does. Therefore, the surface of foods made with sugar alcohols won't become sticky as quickly as products made with sugar.
  • Molds and bacteria do not grow and multiply on sugar alcohols as well as they do on sugar.
  • They can use a combination of sugar alcohols, sugar and/or artificial sweeteners to give the most pleasant taste, appearance and texture to a food product.

Are Sugar Alcohols Safe? 

Sugar alcohols have been used for years. After careful review, scientists have concluded that they are safe for human consumption. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies some sugar alcohols as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), and others are approved as food additives.

For some people, consuming certain sugar alcohols in excessive amounts may cause gastrointestinal upsets such as gas, bloating and diarrhea. Whether or not you will experience problems will depend on your individual sensitivity level and the other foods you consume at the same time. It is best to find your individual tolerance level when using these food ingredients, and avoid them if they cause discomfort.
Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints

Member Comments

Excellant information Report
Thanks for the helpful informatuib Report
Good article. Report
Sugar keeps being renamed. And that hurts those that are really trying. Good article Report
I'd strongly recommend trying a tiny amount first to see how you react. A long time ago I got a chocolate pie at a store that was sweetened with malitol and sorbitol. The three of us here at home each had a piece, and I seemed okay, but the other two had a severe case of diarrhea, including my elderly mother who was greatly weakened by it. It was a little scary for her for awhile. I gather some people are EXTREMELY sensitive to these sweeteners. Report
Great article. Very helpful. Thanks so much!! Report
Great info! Report
great help Report
I am an optimist.
It does not seem too much use being anything else.
- Winston Churchill Report
I really want to stay away from all artificial sugar. I am addictive to the sweet taste of anything with sugar in it. If I have artificial sugar in candy or soda I believe it will trigger my sugar craving. Once triggered it takes a while to recover for me. Report
I def have a problem here..read my 1st blog..its short. Report
I can only eat one kind of sugar-free candy (if I don't eat too much at one time) without getting the runs. I've only looked at the ingredients of that kind which has malitol. I wonder if the others have several types of sugar alcohols. Report
Does anyone else have this problem? Sugar alcohol or anything with sugar alcohol makes me very nauseated and sick. I have tried different items, when I start to feel the nausea, I look at the ingredients and always have an issue with the sugar alcohol. I am unable to consume anything with sugar alcohol, anyone else experience this? Thanks Report
Walking Guide

About The Author

Becky Hand
Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.