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Coffee cup featured with sugar substitute packets; xylitol compound featured on packet.

What Are Sugar Alcohols?

With all of the different names for sugar, reading food labels these days can be quite challenging. One of the common ingredients found in today’s products is sugar alcohol. So how does this affect blood glucose levels when you have type 2 diabetes? Is it helpful or harmful? Let’s check it out.

What are sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols can be derived from actual types of sugar. They are used by manufacturers to decrease the amount of calories in a product, while still maintaining a sweet taste. It has approximately half the calories per gram that regular sugar provides. Sugar-free gum is an example of an item containing sugar alcohol.

What are the benefits?

Because they have fewer calories, sugar alcohols may be a good option for people trying to lose weight. “Another possible benefit of sugar alcohols is related to how the body processes them. They are not fully absorbed and digested by the body, so they result in less of an increase in blood sugar. Foods sweetened with sugar alcohols may allow people with diabetes to maintain better blood sugar control while still enjoying sweet treats in moderation.”1

Are there any negatives to consuming sugar alcohols?

As with other sugar substitutes, there are some side effects that may be experienced when eating foods containing sugar alcohols. Many people report digestive discomfort, as well as a laxative effect. Others have reported increased gas and bloating. “In a 2006 British study, researchers gave participants doses of sugar or one of two types of sugar alcohol (xylitol and erythritol). Those taking xylitol reported bloating, gas, stomach upset and diarrhea. Erythritol appeared to have a milder effect on the stomach, only increasing nausea and gas when given in large doses.”2 If you are concerned that sugar alcohols may be causing you discomfort, try eating a small amount of food containing sugar alcohol and monitor your body’s reaction.

How do I know if my foods have sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols have multiple names. Check the ingredient list of all of your foods that claim to be “lower in sugar” or “sugar-free”. Here are some terms to look for:

  • “Xylitol, often used in gum, is about as sweet as sugar. It comes from wheat straw and some cereals and is commercially made from corncobs.
  • Maltitol is about 75 percent as sweet as sugar and comes from corn syrup.
  • Erythritol is 60 to 80 percent as sweet as sugar. It is found in things like pears, soy sauce, and watermelon and is manufactured by fermenting corn.
  • Mannitol is 50 to 70 percent as sweet as sugar. It is found in carrots, olives, asparagus and is manufactured from seaweed.
  • Isomalt is about 45 to 65 percent as sweet as sugar. It comes from beet sugar.
  • Sorbitol is about half as sweet as sugar. It is found in apples and pears and is manufactured from corn syrup.
  • Lactitol provides about 40 percent the sweetness of sugar. Manufacturers make it from milk.
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates range between 40 and 90 percent as sweet as sugar. Manufacturers produce them by mixing different sugar alcohols.”2

Speak with your physician if you have any specific questions about sugar alcohols and your diet.

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