When it comes to sugar substitutes, there seems to be an endless array of difficult-to-pronounce items and even more opinions on their health benefits, safety, or undiscovered toxic effects. So today, I’m going to tackle just one category of sugar substitutes—sugar alcohols. When I talk about sugar, I mean refined table sugar or sucrose. You know…the white stuff that we all love. But the fear of weight gain from eating sugar is always hanging over our heads. So instead, sometimes we turn to sugar substitutes like sugar alcohols.
What are they?
Sugar alcohol are carbohydrates found naturally in some plant foods, or are manufactured from other carbohydrate sources (such as corn, sugar beets, or whey) by adding hydrogens to sugars from those sources. They have less absorbable calories than sugar, and thus are seen as a great sugar substitute. So you can get a sweet taste with less calories.
Some common sugar alcohols include:
The major benefit of sugar alcohols actually is their poor metabolism or digestibility. Because they’re not easily digested and are typically poorly absorbed through passive diffusion, they only have (on average) 2 calories per gram instead of the 4 found in table sugar. They also don’t cause a large rise in blood sugar, like sugar does. However, this perceived benefit can have negative side effects, too. Since large portions aren’t digested, they travel to the large intestine where they ferment causing gas build up, and attract water, which can lead to diarrhea. So in large amounts, they can cause some pretty serious GI problems.