Is Sugar Alcohol Bad for You?- A look into the effect of sugar alcohols on your body

Many of us avoiding refined sugars are often attracted to products that promote themselves as sugar free. But, when we turn to the nutrition label, we see “0 g of sugars” but maybe “5 g of sugar alcohol “. How can foods say they are sugar free, but contain sugar alcohols?

My goal for this article is to understand:

  1. What is a sugar alcohol (or, as some people call them, alcohol sugars)?
  2. Why are sugar alcohols so popular?
  3. Are sugar alcohols safe? What effect do they have on the human body and should we be eating them?

What are sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates, but they have characteristics of refined sugar and fiber, since they are partially digestible. Fiber, if you recall from my earlier post, is not digestible but important for digestive health. This does not mean that sugar alcohols are important for digestive health.

Sugar alcohols are made by combining easily digestible sugars, such as glucose and sucrose [1]. While many sugar alcohols are found in nature, the production of sugar alcohols is performed in chemical labs to meet the market demand.

Sugar alcohols do not contain the same type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages.

What are names of some sugar alcohols?

There are many types of sugar alcohols, including:

  • Xytlitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Isomalt
  • Erythritiol
  • Lactitol
  • Mannitol
  • Arabitol

Nerd alert! Here’s a hint and a pattern you probably noticed above- a lot of sugar alcohols end on ‘ol’. As a group, they are known as polyols (meaning many ‘ol’s). If you remember chem class- and it’s ok if you don’t!- ‘ol’ is a common ending to indicate there is an alcohol group on a molecule.

Why are sugar alcohols so popular?

Sugar alcohols are sweeteners that cause a lower spike in blood sugar than traditional white or brown refined sugar and often have fewer or no calories as compared to traditional sweeteners. For people who want the sweet taste but not the spike in blood sugar, sugar alcohols provide an alternative.

I personally think another reason why sugar alcohols are so popular is because companies are not required to list them in the nutrition facts. Disclosing how many sugar alcohols are in a product is a voluntary act according to the FDA [2].

I hate to be pessimistic, but there is a capitalist advantage in the US to use sugar alcohols. Companies can claim foods are sugar-free, include sugar alcohols in these foods, and not tell us about the sugar alcohols. If you aren’t addicted to sugar, this isn’t a big deal. But for people like me, this is completely unfair.

Is sugar alcohol bad for you? Are sugar alcohols safe?

The FDA believes that sugar alcohols are safe. However, because sugar alcohols are not easily digested, they often cause bloating, nausea and diarrhea.

Whether alcohols sugars are bad for you depends on who you are. If you are a diabetic who is not a sugar addict, then perhaps sugar alcohols are not risky for you since they won’t raise your blood sugar.

The professional opinions I’ve gotten from healthcare providers who work with sugar addicts that is that sugar alcohols should be avoided for those addicted to refined sugars.

How are sugar alcohols and refined sugars related?

As mentioned above, sugar alcohols are made from combining sugars such as glucose and sucrose. In terms of chemical structure, sugar alcohols and refined sugars are similar.

Gram for gram, sugar alcohols cause a lower spike in blood sugar than refined sugars. However, if eaten in large enough quantities, sugar alcohols can still cause huge spikes in blood sugar. These rapid increases in blood sugar levels are a huge problem for sugar addicts.

Addiction does not know limits. If you were addicted to sugar, there is a chance that you will transfer that addictive, compulsive eating to foods with sugar alcohols. In essence, you could be setting yourself up for failure if you think you can substitute foods with sugar alcohols for those with refined sugar.

Should we eat sugar alcohols?

There is no general guideline for consumption of sugar alcohols. I currently cannot even find guidelines on the suggested amounts of sugar alcohols to eat in one day. This is a huge warning sign for me. The FDA says it is ok to include in our foods, but does not provide guidelines on how much to consume or force companies to disclose sugar alcohols on nutrition labels.

I’m avoiding sugar alcohols – what about you?

Until I find scientific articles that can explain that sugar alcohols are not addicting, I am going to leave them out of my diet. Sugar alcohols are fine for many people, but I’m not comfortable with the level of public information about them. We deserve more information to make a sound decision for our health.

Let me know in the comments below what you know about sugar alcohols, and if you like them or not!

 

 

References:

[1] Sugar Alcohols. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugar_alcohol

[2] Sugar Alcohols. FDA. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/InteractiveNutritionFactsLabel/sugar-alcohol.html

 

 

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