Open Accessibility Menu

Ask a Dietitian: Sugar Alcohols

Ask a Dietitian: Sugar Alcohols

By Jody Long, MS, RD, CDCES

Do you have a nutrition, weight, food, or health-related question? Email us your questions:

I see sugar alcohols in a lot of food ingredient lists, what exactly are they? (submitted by MH)

That’s a great question MH! Sugar alcohols have become more popular with food manufacturers trying to offer more low-carb, sugar-free, keto or diabetes-friendly foods. They sweeten products while keeping calories and sugar content at a minimum.

What is sugar alcohol?

It is neither sugar nor alcohol but rather a type of carbohydrate similar in chemical structure to sugar. They are not absorbed or digested completely. Most sugar alcohols are artificial, though some come from fruits and vegetables. Some common sugar alcohols are:

  • Maltitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol
  • Erythritol

Benefits of Sugar Alcohols

  1. Fewer calories. While sugar provides 4 calories per gram, sugar alcohol has slightly more than 2 calories per gram. They also have a lower glycemic index than regular forms of sugar and
  2. Better blood sugar control. Having a lower glycemic index than regular forms of sugar, they may only cause a slight rise in blood sugar levels.
  3. Less risk for cavities. Unlike regular sugars, sugar alcohols don’t contribute to tooth decay.

Side Effects of Sugar Alcohols

  1. Laxative effect. Because these are not absorbed, they can linger in the intestines and can ferment. This is seen more in children and people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  2. Gastrointestinal side effects. Again, because they aren’t fully digested, unpleasant GI symptoms can occur after consumption. These may include bloating, gas, upset stomach, and diarrhea.
  3. Not a magic bullet for weight control. Yes, they are lower in calories and carbs, but not free! Eating in excess can lead to weight gain.

How to detect presence of sugar alcohol in your foods.

Look for ‘sugar-free’ on the label. Sugar alcohols have many different names just like sugar does. Below are some common sugar alcohols used in foods.

Xylitol: often found in gum. It comes from wheat straw, cereals, and manufacturers make it from corncobs.

Maltitol: comes from corn syrup

Erythritol: Comes from pears and watermelon, or fermenting corn.

Mannitol: naturally comes from carrots, olives, and asparagus. Manufacturers make it from seaweed.

Sorbitol: Naturally in apples and pears, make it from corn syrup

Lactitol: made from milk

Isomalt: Comes from beet sugar

Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates: manufacturers mix different sugar alcohols together.