Last updated on June 18th, 2016
Sugar alcohols represent a classification of molecules that act as low-calorie sweeteners. They can be found in many foods a diabetic eats, such as sugar-free gum, puddings that advertise that they are “no sugar added”, cookies, and ice cream. In these types of foods, you’ll find that they contain sugar alcohols instead of sugar, which makes them “sugar free”.
Any food that says it is “sugar free” or says that “no sugar is added”, are likely to contain sugar alcohols instead of simple sugars. Even though they are lower in calories than their sugar-containing counterparts, they are still carbohydrates that have the capacity to increase your blood sugar levels.
Types of Sugar Alcohols
There are many types of sugar alcohol that you can take in by eating sugar free or no sugar added foods. These include the following:
- Glycerol (glycerin)
- Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
While the name suggests that these substances contain alcohol, they actually contain no alcohol at all and are only named “sugar alcohols” because they have a molecular backbone that is an alcohol substance.
Advantages of Eating Foods with Sugar Alcohols
Foods you eat that are either low in calories or say that they are “reduced-calorie” foods often use sugar alcohol to sweeten them. They generally have fewer calories when compared to the same product that was sweetened with sugar. Because these foods are usually lower in calories, they may help you lose weight or can prevent you from gaining weight. Sugar alcohol-containing foods have fewer carbs than foods with sugar so that your blood sugar level is often lower than if you eat the sugar-containing counterpart.
You can buy sugar alcohols at the grocery store for use in sweetening recipes, coffee, and other foods (like cereal and fruits). They add very few calories to the food so that, if the product you are adding the sugar alcohol to is also low in calories, you may be able to lose some weight or may keep from gaining weight in diabetes. Sugar alcohols can also be used in various recipes but you will have to experiment to see how much of the sugar alcohol is the right amount to use to sweeten the recipe in the same way that regular sugar does.
Disadvantages of eating Foods with Sugar Alcohol
Even though you have chosen a product that says it contains a low-calorie or reduced-calorie sweetener in them, you should still check the label for its nutrition facts. Foods that are high in sugar alcohol usually still have a lot of carbohydrates in them and can contain a lot of fat and calories. While sugar alcohol-containing products are considered better for you than sugary foods, they are not a “free food” and you will have to count the calories and carbohydrates in the product just like you must do with regular foods.
Check each food label for the number of carbohydrates in the product and check the amount of fat in the product as well. Foods that are baked that indicate that they are “sugar free” often contain a great deal of trans fats (used to preserve food) and saturated fat (which can raise cholesterol levels). Just because a product contains sugar alcohol and not sugar doesn’t mean it is low in calories so it can be just as likely to increase your weight as a sugar-containing food.
You also need to know that many sugar alcohols act as laxatives in the gastrointestinal tract so that you might have symptoms related to the GI tract and may not be suitable for children or for people who already have problems with diarrhea.
Sources of Sugar Alcohols
Sugar alcohols are also called polyols. They are a type of carbohydrate you will find is a natural part of many kinds of vegetables and fruits. Food made at a factory that contains starches, sucrose (table sugar) and glucose may also have sugar alcohols in them in order to bring down the calorie count so that the product can be labeled as “reduced sugar”. The most common source of sugar alcohol comes from corn syrup, which is not very healthy for you.
Sugar alcohols are incompletely absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract and what amount is absorbed is absorbed much more slowly than regular sugar. This can be helpful for diabetics who don’t want to take in large amounts of simple sugars and who don’t want to have high spikes in their blood sugar levels after eating. As they are lower in calories than sugar, sugar alcohols are preferred by diabetics who need to lose weight.
Sugar alcohols are now found in many foods for diabetics because they are “low sugar” foods and are often low in calories. These reduced-carbohydrate products are sometimes used to bulk up the food and have a texture that make them seem just like real sugar. Most sugar alcohols contain just 1-2 calories per gram, which is much less than is found in table sugar. Besides foods, sugar alcohols are found in certain OTC medications, cough syrup, chewable vitamins, and throat lozenges.
In order to find out how many carbohydrates are found in a food containing sugar alcohol, you need to pay attention to the food label that must be listed on all commercially-made food products. The food label will say the amount of total carbohydrates in the food as well as the amount of sugar. These values will be different in sugar alcohol-containing foods that contain carbohydrates but don’t contain sugar.
The label will list the number of grams of sugar alcohol in the product. In order to determine the total carbohydrates your body will absorb, you need to divide the gram content by 2. This means that only about 50 percent of the sugar alcohol you take in is actually absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract, with the rest passing through the stool.
Counting Carbs with Sugar Alcohols
Because sugar alcohols are less digestible when compared to plain sugar, they have a lesser effect on the blood glucose levels after eating or drinking them. This is why you need to count only 50 percent of the total carbohydrate count on the nutrition label if sugar alcohols are the source of the carbohydrates.
As an example, if the food contains one serving in the product and contains 30 grams of carbohydrates, check to see if the product contains sugar alcohol as a sweetener or regular sugar. If the source of the carbohydrate is exclusively from sugar alcohols, you can divide that number by 2, giving you a total of 15 grams of carbohydrate in the product.
- Sugar Alcohols. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat/understanding-carbohydrates/sugar-alcohols.html. Accessed 5/11/16.
- What are the effects of sugar alcohols? http://www.everydayhealth.com/diabetes/type2/understanding/specialist/getaneh/effects-of-sugar-alcohols.aspx. Accessed 5/11/16.
- Counting sugar alcohols. http://dtc.ucsf.edu/living-with-diabetes/diet-and-nutrition/understanding-carbohydrates/counting-carbohydrates/learning-to-read-labels/counting-sugar-alcohols/. Accessed 5/11/16.