Monday, January 30, 2012

Sugar Alcohols

In my most recent post I discussed sugar imposters.  AKA: sugar substitutes, or non-caloric sweeteners.  However, I left out one large group that deserves its own posting.  They are the sugar alcohols.  These products are made by hydrogenating carbohydrates.  This is different from the hydrogenation process used to turn liquid fats into solid fats such as margarine.  However, both process do require the addition of a hydrogen molecule, and the breaking of a double bond.  Sorry if this is making you reach far back into your high school chemistry years.  There are approximately 10+ sugar alcohols available for use as a food additive, the ones listed below in bold are the ones you will most frequently run into on a nutrition label.

  • Erythritol: Discovered in 1848, it naturally occurs in some fruits and fermented foods.
  • Glycerol: Typically used as a filler in baked goods as well as a thickener in viscous foods.
  • HSH: Hydrogenated Starch Hydrosylate, used as a humectant in order to retain moisture in foods.
  • Isomalt: Naturally found in beets, and used widely in sugar sculptures because it does not crystalize as quickly as sugar.
  • Lactitol: Non active ingredient in many medications, but an active ingredient in some laxatives.
  • Maltitol: Widely used in candy, chocolates, and chewing gum.
  • Mannitol: Found in almost all plants, and occurs during fermentation.  Used in medications needed to affect the brain, as it is capable of crossing the blood/brain barrier.  Sometimes used as a filler in illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine...
  • Sorbitol: Used as a thickener in many food and cosmetic products.
  • Xylitol: Most easily tolerated of all SAs.  May aid in increasing bone density, preventing ear/upper respiratory infections, as well as controlling yeast infections.

Unlike the other sugar substitutes, sugar alcohols are not as sweet as sugar.  Products that use other artificial sweeteners, often add SAs in order to mask the flavor of the other sweeteners.  Because they are poorly absorbed by the body, and typically contain between 1/8 to 1/2 the calories of sugar, SAs contribute very few calories to the diet.  This means they also cause only small changes in blood sugars which can make them appealing to people with Diabetes.  However, since they are poorly absorbed in the intestines, overconsumption of foods made with SAs may lead to gas, bloating, and diarrhea.  People who have undergone any form of gastric bypass surgery should be especially wary of these side effects.

Sugar alcohols do not brown, and are not suitable for baking when used alone.  This is why they are most often seen in candy products, chewing gum, and mouth wash.  These products are used world wide, and do not appear to cause cancer.  People with diabetes, especially those taking insulin do need to be aware that these products will increase their blood sugar.  There is some evidence that excess intake of sorbitol by people with diabetes may increase their chances for nerve/small blood vessel complications.

As with most things dealing with food, I say if you want to eat it, eat the real thing.  These sweeteners have their place, most notably in chewing gum and breath mints.  But if you notice that a large proportion of your pantry contains foods with these or other artificial sweeteners in them, it may be time to take a step back and reevaluate your diet.  As I mentioned in the previous post, artificial sweeteners contain no important nutrients, so just like sugar, they should be consumed minimally.


  1. Brenna,

    I have been very low carb for many years now. I rarely look for substitutes for conventional junk foods like cookies, cake etc however, over the last few years, I have made an effort to develop a homemade low carb ice cream. I start with a whole egg custard made with heavy cream and eggs. My sweetener of choice is Truvia (Erythritol and Stevia) along with a small amount of table sugar. The “secret” ingredient is Polydextrose which is a manmade fiber very little of which is digested in the small intestine so the insulin response is nearly zero. While “Polydextrose” sounds like “Franken Food” most naturally occurring fiber can be described as polyfructose. In both cases , the sugar molecules are tightly bound together so the enzymatic action in the small intestine cannot digest them. They pass through to the large intestine where bacterial action transforms them in to volatile fatty acids (short chain saturated fats) that the body can use. Polydextrose helps solve the problem described below:

    Sugar is (nearly) essential to ice cream because it provides solids and lowers the melting point which allows ice cream to remain somewhat soft in the freezer. Ice cream made without sugar can be enjoyed shortly after its made but it will turn in to a block of ice in the freezer over the next few days.


  2. Great information, I had never heard of sugar alcohols.