What are sugar alcohols and what is their purpose in the human diet? Are they friend or foe in obesity treatment?
Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates and their chemical structure resembles both a sugar molecule and an alcohol molecule (not the alcohol found in alcoholic beverages). Many people do not realize that sugar alcohols are found naturally in small amounts of a variety of vegetables and fruits. For example, pineapples, olives, asparagus and sweet potatoes all contain mannitol, while blackberries, raspberries, apples and pears all contain sorbitol naturally.
Sugar alcohols can also be commercially produced (see Table 1). Commercially produced sugar alcohols are added to sweeten foods without the caloric hit that sugar would provide. As a sugar substitute, they provide fewer calories than regular sugar.
Sugar alcohols are beneficial in foods intended for persons living with diabetes or being treated for obesity. This is because sugar alcohols are converted to glucose more slowly, require little or no insulin to be metabolized and do not cause sudden increases in blood sugar.
Sugar alcohols are regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) as food additives and are generally recognized as safe (GRAS.)
The PROS of sugar alcohols:
*They provide sweetness with fewer calories.
*They add bulk and texture to products.
*Some produce a cooling sensation in the mouth.
*They do not react with plaque bacteria in the mouth, so they do not cause dental cavities.
*They do not affect blood sugar levels the same as sugar.
The CONS of sugar alcohols:
*Sugar alcohols are slowly and incompletely absorbed and may contribute to gastrointestinal upset; because they are not fully absorbed, gut bacteria ferment sugar alcohols in the large intestine producing gas, bloating and diarrhea in some individuals.
*Products containing 50 grams or more of sorbitol or 20 grams or more of mannitol must carry the warning statement “excessive consumption may have a laxative effect.”
HealthWise uses a combination of nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners including sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols are found only in certain products. The content ranges from <1 to 5 grams per product.
Table 2. Sugar Alcohol and HealthWise Products
*Some products listed may no longer be available. Contact us for an up to date list of products that contain sugar alcohol.
The bottom line is, appropriately used, sugar alcohols have a role in weight management and in meal plans for patients with diabetes. Long-term benefits have not been established and more research is needed to document health benefits.
1. Sugar Alcohols; www.fda.gov/nutritioneducation
2. Eat Any Sugar Alcohol Lately? Yale-New Haven Hospital; www.ynhh.org/services/nutrition/sugar-alcohol.aspx
3. What are Sugar Alcohols and How Do They Work? The Sugar Association; www.sugar.org
4. Sugar Alcohols Fact Sheet. foodinsight.org/sugar-alcohols-fact-sheet