The Truth About Sugar Alcohols

Jenna Birch
by Jenna Birch
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The Truth About Sugar Alcohols

There’s a little something lurking in your chewing gum, hard candy, “light” ice cream, cookies and pudding. And if you have GI problems, you might want to take a hard look at your diet to see if sugar alcohols might be a hidden culprit.

“Sugar alcohols are low-calorie sweeteners, and they have been shown to have less effect on blood sugar levels, particularly for diabetics,” says Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet. “But for some people, sugar alcohols can cause stomach discomfort.”

Typically ending in “itol” on your food label, these sweeteners, such as maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol or xylitol, are found in a lot of lower-calorie, lower-fat packaged goods to add flavor. They’re also not actually alcohol. “Don’t worry,” says Gans. “It’s not like you’re taking a shot of vodka with your ice cream.” Phew. Good to know.

But that’s the major pro: Sugar alcohols are typically associated with foods that are likely low-cal alternatives to your favorite carb-y indulgences, and might help your waistline if you’re watching your weight. The con? Gas, bloating and upset stomach for some. Ick.

A lot of people get upset stomachs if they’ve constantly got hard candy or chewing gum in their mouths. If that sounds like you, try cutting out those dietary extras entirely, at least for a while, to see if you can identify and resolve issues like gas and bloating. However, if you’re not a huge gum-chewer or breath-mint-popper and you’re still experiencing these GI symptoms, your entire diet might need a quick check.

First off, sugar alcohols are typically found in packaged, processed goods. So if you’re eating enough of these additives to cause stomach discomfort, you might also be looking at a bigger issue: the overall health of your diet.

Gans would want to take a peek at what you’re eating on a typical day. “If you’re consuming one product with sugar alcohols, that’s OK,” she says. “But if you’re consuming three or four a day, I’d want to know if you’re eating enough fruit, vegetables and whole grains.”

Consuming sugar alcohols might not just be a hidden source of stomachaches, but also an indicator you’re not getting enough naturally-occurring foods. Gans suggests moderation with any sweetener—whether it’s sugar, honey, stevia or sugar alcohols.

“There’s a place for sugar alcohols, and eating foods that might be ‘light’ alternatives,” says Gans. “That said, these foods aren’t calorie-free, they aren’t carb-free, and you should always primarily be eating close to nature.”

So, start opting for berries as your sweet treat after dinner, or whip up “banana” ice cream instead of the “light” ice cream you buy by the carton. It’ll be healthier for your body, and your digestive system may just thank you, too.

About the Author

Jenna Birch
Jenna Birch

Jenna Birch is a health and lifestyle writer. She has written for many web and print publications, including Marie Claire, Runner’s World, mom.me and WomansDay.com. As a nutrition and fitness junkie, she’s a lifelong athlete, major college sports fan and developing yogi—but still can’t resist the allure of an occasional chocolate lava cake. (Everything in moderation, right?) For more, visit her at jennabirch.com or follow her on Twitter.  

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38 responses to “The Truth About Sugar Alcohols”

  1. Rob says:

    If you’re controlling your sugar, I think it’s a much better option to just each less/appropriate amounts of real sugar rather than introducing sugar alcohols into your diet. I think closest to nature is the way we want to go, in general, with food.

    • Ariel Olson says:

      Actually, fructose (the sugar that comes from fruit) is one of the most damaging substances you can put in your body. It is just as toxic to your liver as real alcohol is, and it raises blood sugar levels significantly, as does table sugar (dextrose). Sugar alcohols can cause stomach upset if consumed in high quantities, for sensitive individuals, but other than that are harmless. They will never taste as good as real sugar, of course. Milk sugar (lactose) is the best kind of sugar because it does not affect blood sugar–unless you have dairy issues.

      • CH+2 says:

        In biochemistry I learned that a lactose molecule is a glucose attached to a galactose. Enzymes in our bodies cut the molecule, then chemically change the galactose into another glucose. The net result is 2 glucose molecules.

        • Ariel Olson says:

          This is true, but dairy products still have very low GI scores for their minimal effect on blood sugar levels, although this is due in part to the fact that protein and fat are consumed along with the few carbs.

          • CH+2 says:

            Does this apply to diabetics, for whom glucose is a concern?

          • Rob says:

            For type II diabetes, yes. It can generally be controlled/eliminated with appropriate diet and exercise. Eating appropriate amounts of glucose for a Type II shouldn’t be a problem. Once a Type II loses weight, insulin resistance goes away (straight out of a registered nurse’s mouth). For Type I, no.

      • Rob says:

        Ariel, eating appropriate amounts of fructose is not a problem. Fructose is an issue in the US because we add too much to too many foods. Eating a couple of servings of fruit each day (which has fructose, and lots of other beneficial vitamins and fiber) isn’t a problem. It’s when we drink soft drinks and candy bars, etc that it becomes a problem.

        • Ariel Olson says:

          My point in mentioning fructose and fruit earlier was just that things from nature aren’t necessarily harmless! I apologize if it sounded like I was attacking you, or suggesting that we shouldn’t eat ANY fruit at all. (I do 🙂 A vegetable is a better choice, but not nearly as delicious.

      • louise says:

        The answer to all food diet issues is to only eat natural home made food end of anything else will harm your body as it cannot work out what to do with it!!!

      • louise says:

        The answer to all food diet issues is to only eat natural home made food end of anything else will harm your body as it cannot work out what to do with it!!!

      • aus1 says:

        Lactose is a form of sugar and so does in fact raise your blood sugar – in everyone. Also fructose found in fruit is of no real health concern as it has the fibre ect. from the fruit to go along with it. It is when you have the high fructose corn syrup added to foods that fructose becomes a major issue.

  2. Annie says:

    Yes! This is what happened to me…. I am a diabetic who loves chocolate. For Mother’s Day my husband left a little bag of “diabetic chocolates” on my make-up table as a treat for me. Cute. Well, I devouvered them thinking that they were ok for me to eat (all at once), put my make up on and went to work. I then spent the whole morning falling asleep at my desk, because my blood sugar was so high, and running to the toilet every ten minutes with more than upset stomach!!!! Ugh! Following this traumatic lesson in “Everything in Moderation”, I did a little research and found out this important information that you are sharing today. I suspect many people do not know about sugar alcohols and their effect on the body. I now skip the sugar substitutes, and just use a lot less of the natural stuff! Thanks so much for your article.

    • guest says:

      Eating them all at once is what you think moderation means? Perhaps the lesson you should have learned (apart from the definition of moderation) was to read the ingredients and nutritional info first.

      • Jennifer says:

        She just said it was “a lesson in moderation.” In other words, she learned that it was a bad idea to eat them all at once. I don’t think you quite understood what she was saying…

        • guest says:

          No, she said it was a lesson in “moderation in everything.” You have to read all of the words in a sentence. You can’t just skip some of them and expect the meaning to stay the same. It means she experienced bad consequences even though she believes she was practicing moderation.

          • Jim says:

            That’s not what she’s saying at all. She’s saying that she learned the hard way
            that she should have moderated the amount she ate. Just like you need to moderate how big a tool you are.

        • guest says:

          Her words were, ‘traumatic lesson in “Everything in Moderation,”‘ which means she thought eating them all at once was moderation. She then follows up with “I now skip the sugar substitutes.” So how is this learning moderation? Eating all, then eating none. Neither of these are moderation. In fact this is the exact opposite of moderation.

    • Nerdy Knitter says:

      If you’d acted like less of an idiot, you could have easily worked sugar alcohols into your diet without additional issues. This is purely you being stupid as someone with special dietary needs and has nothing to do with the ingredient itself.

      It should have been a lesson in not shoveling everything blindly into your mouth because it has a label on it. I’m also not quite sure how you lived to this day as a diabetic without doing any research on all sugar substitutes and knowing that maltitol (the most common chocolate sweetener) raises the GI by about 50% of regular sugar, but is considered ‘sugar free’ because it doesn’t contain sucrose.

      The ‘natural stuff’ is still worse for you because it causes much more drastic spikes in your blood sugar that makes it harder to keep regular levels. I don’t know how long you’ve been a diabetic for, but as a fellow diabetic, I think you’re an idiot.

    • Rita Scarborough says:

      I agree, skip the subs and use less honey or pure maple syrup. I use organic I can, though it can be costly, I’m only using a little at a time so it lasts for a bit. So sorry that happened to you.

    • guest says:

      I like how the one response that actually contained useful information was deleted.

  3. KElle says:

    Had a quest bar last week which is sweetened with sugar alcohol. The taste was awful and I could not get rid of the saccharin taste in my mouth for hours…then I got the bloating and gas. No thank you!

  4. guest says:

    LOL Birch. Xylitol is not “close to nature” even though it comes from birch trees?

    Also, many drastic dietary changes result in discomfort and indigestion etc. If you have problems with sugar alcohols you might try slowly increasing your use of them instead of being ridiculous.

    • Rob says:

      sugar alcohols require chemical processing. That is what I mean by not close to nature.

    • Rob says:

      I also said “in general” because I recognize that there are exceptions. But I still think natural food is the way to go. The less it is manipulated, the better. I get bad headaches from xylitol. I don’t know why b

      An important side note: xylitol is very toxic for dogs.

  5. Guest says:

    Umm…has no one around here taken organic chem? Because none of you seem to know what you’re talking about…. Ariel, dextrose is not table sugar. Sucrose is table sugar, consisting of an equal proportion of fructose to glucose, the only “safe” way to consume fructose, but since it is generally found in nature in close association with glucose, most naturally found forms should be fine. Jenna, xylitol, mannitol, maltitol and sorbitol ARE indeed alcohols, so please don’t tell people they are not, because you are incorrect. Are they the same as downing a shot of vodka? No, but that’s because most people’s definition of alcohol is too narrow. I agree with Rob. We don’t need as much sweet food as people seem to think

    • Guest says:

      Just eat smaller portions of real and natural sugar, you’ll be fine

    • fitgirl says:

      Can you just state your point without the attitude and the attempt to sound superior?

    • Ariel Olson says:

      Sorry, I realized my mistake after I posted. You are correct–dextrose is not traditional table sugar, but it can be used as a substitute by people who are allergic to fructose and lactose.

      Fructose in large quantities (in ANY form, naturally occurring or not) has been found to cause liver damage. I tried to include a link earlier, but MFP has not cleared that post yet, I guess.

      “Part of what makes fructose so unhealthy is that it is metabolized to fat in your body far more rapidly than any other sugar. The entire burden of metabolizing fructose falls on your liver, and it promotes a particularly dangerous kind of body fat, namely adipose fat. This is the fat type of fat that collects in your abdominal region and is associated with a greater risk of heart disease.
      Further, fructose…does not appropriately stimulate insulin, which in turn does not suppress ghrelin (the ‘hunger hormone’) and doesn’t stimulate leptin (the ‘satiety hormone’), which together result in your eating more and developing insulin resistance… Over time leads to insulin resistance, which is not only an underlying factor of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, but also many cancers.” (From articles . mercola . com, archives Oct 8 2011)

  6. guest says:

    Why the fuck are you deleting random comments?

  7. Rita Scarborough says:

    Great article. Thank you!

  8. S01 says:

    Monash Uni – Melb Aus, provides for those with digestion issues (IBS) which don’t appear to be being caused by more serious issues (coeliac etc). Google FODMAP if your interested.

  9. Karen fuller says:

    just new to discussion
    I’m eating a lot of fruit & vegtables .I use stevia for my coffee ,now with all I’m doing I’m not loosing weight but I’m getting bloated. Which of the foods are you talking about that could have alcohol sugars so I can be aware of them I been trying to eat organic but in discussion this isn’t good so how do we know?
    Thanks

  10. Karen fuller says:

    just new to discussion
    I’m eating a lot of fruit & vegtables .I use stevia for my coffee ,now with all I’m doing I’m not loosing weight but I’m getting bloated. Which of the foods are you talking about that could have alcohol sugars so I can be aware of them I been trying to eat organic but in discussion this isn’t good so how do we know?
    Thanks

  11. Coach Levi says:

    I’ve heard numerous horror stories, but never had an issue, so I thought sugar alcohols were no problem for me. Then I had a drink containing erythritol and thought I got food poisoning!

    The point is, be careful – there might only be one sugar alcohol that upsets your stomach, and you don’t want to find out what it is!

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