Ask the Dietitian: Are Sugar Alcohols OK?

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
by Trinh Le, MPH, RD
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Ask the Dietitian: Are Sugar Alcohols OK?

If you want to eat less added sugar, chances are you’ve considered a sugar replacement at some point. It’s a very personal choice whether you want to slash added sugar by eating fewer sweets or turning to zero-free, artificial sugar sweeteners. If it’s the latter, there are tons of choices on your grocery shelves. Just know you can always ask your doctor or dietitian to help you select a sweetener that’s right for your particular situation.

For the purpose of this article, I’ll hone in on the sugar substitute blend you’re describing.

WHAT ARE ERYTHRITOL AND OLIGOSACCHARIDES?

I think what you’re referring to is “Swerve Sweetener,” a sugar replacement product marketed as diabetes-friendly. It is a blend of erythritol and oligosaccharides. Here’s what they are in a nutshell:

  1. Erythritol is a “sugar alcohol,” a carbohydrate that tastes sweet but isn’t recognized by our digestive system as either sugar or alcohol. As a result, we can’t metabolize erythritol like we can regular sugar. About 90% of it is lost through urine. Only a small fraction is fermented in our gut giving us a negligible amount of calories. Here’s why erythritol is useful for diabetics: Its glycemic index is 0 meaning it won’t spike your blood sugar. This is helpful since people with diabetes have a harder time maintaining normal blood sugar levels.
  1. Oligosaccharides are considered a fiber on U.S. food labels. They are a chain of sugar molecules linked in such a way that we can’t digest to get at those calories. Instead, they’re fermented by our gut bacteria for a negligible amount of calories. Here’s why oligosaccharides can be helpful: They are known as “prebiotics” because they can nourish the good bacteria in our gut.

Both erythritol and oligosaccharides are found naturally in foods. Small quantities of erythritol are in vegetables, fruit, mushrooms, wine, beer and soy sauce. Small quantities of oligosaccharides are in asparagus, leeks, garlic, onion, oats, etc.

WEIGHING THE BENEFITS OF AN ERYTHRITOL-OLIGOSACCHARIDE SUGAR REPLACEMENT

While there are lots of other sugar substitutes on the market, the benefit of this blend is you can use it cup-for-cup as you would regular sugar when baking. You would not need to do conversions as would be needed for high-intensity sweeteners like aspartame, stevia and sucralose which are 200–600 times sweeter than sugar. That being said, each sugar substitute comes with its own aftertaste so you may still need to experiment before finding a sweet spot.


READ MORE > ESSENTIAL GUIDE TO PORTION SIZES


If you have a sensitive stomach, an erythritol-oligosaccharide blend may not be for you. Sugar alcohols are known to cause gas, bloating and diarrhea when eaten in large quantities, especially for people who are sensitive to them. The same can be said for certain oligosaccharides. (Note: Compared to other sugar alcohols, erythritol shows fewer reported side effects.)

THE VERDICT

A sugar replacement may be useful for those with diabetes or those who follow a very low-carbohydrate diet. It can help you stay on track with your health goals without being knocked off course by an occasional sugar craving. If you are trying to beat habitual sugar cravings, try not to use these products as a crutch. Work to beat them naturally. Finally, enjoy sugar replacements in reasonable amounts and make note if you experience any uncomfortable stomach issues.

About the Author

Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh Le, MPH, RD
Trinh is a registered dietitian by day, blogger at Fearless Food RD by night. She loves helping folks develop a better relationship with food, which includes lots of cooking, eating and learning about nutrition. When she’s not snapping mouthwatering shots of (mostly) healthy food, you can find Trinh HIIT-ing it at her local gym. For more, connect with her on FacebookInstagram and Pinterest.

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