Let’s Talk Sugar Alcohols
Have you ever heard of them? Sugar alcohols are not sugar, they are not alcohol, they are one of their own. Sugar Alcohols are polyols and are ingredients that are used as sweeteners. They do come naturally from plant products such as fruits and berries. Sounds pretty good, huh?
You might recognize some of these specific sugar alcohols: Xylitol, Erythritol, Sorbitol, or Maltitol. Sugar alcohols are a natural sugar in things like fruits, olives, carrots, and sweet potatoes. You may also recognize sugar alcohols from some processed items such as Protein Bars, Sugar Free Candy, Sugar Free Gum, Chocolate alternatives, and other “low carb” or “sugar free” packaged items.
There are some good things about Sugar Alcohols. There are some not so great things about Sugar Alcohols. Let’s dive deep.
First - how do sugar alcohols actually differ from regular sugar? Are they even related?
Sugar alcohols are thought to be less absorbed by the body compared to sugar - meaning they are not digested and absorbed as sugar.
Sugar alcohols also cause lower blood sugar spikes when consumed. For instance, a donut made with white sugar or brown sugar is high on the glycemic index which means it will cause your blood glucose (sugar) level to spike up: your blood sugar may go as high as 180 after consuming a donut. A homemade donut, however, that uses sugar alcohol as the sweetener like Xylitol or Erythritol may only cause a blood sugar rise to 115 because less is absorbed into the cells and blood as sugar. Essentially, sugar alcohols are lower on the Glycemic Index.
You will see protein bars that have Sugar Alcohols listed on the label. Theoretically, these protein bars have lower total carbohydrates in them and cause less of a blood sugar rise, which means the marketing world can argue it is better for you.
Sugar Alcohols have about 2 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram in regular sugar, thus there are less calories per gram in sugar alcohols compared to a “white” sugar.
How do I see Sugar Alcohols on a Label? How do I determine the Total Carbohydrates when looking at an item with Sugar Alcohols?
Net Carbohydrates = Total Carbs - (Fiber + Sugar Alcohols)
Total carbs: 19 grams
Fiber: 5 grams
Sugars: 0 grams
Sugar Alcohols: 12 grams
Net Carbohydrates = 19 - (5 + 12) = 2 grams
*The Key Here - you do NOT subtract out the “Total Sugars”. For instance, if the label said Total Carbohydrates is 20 grams, Fiber is 4 grams, Total Sugars is 6 grams, and Erythritol 2 grams then you would see
Net Carbohydrates = 20 - (4 + 2) = 14 grams – leaving the 6 grams of total sugars alone*
That all sounds GREAT… So what is the Bad and the Ugly?
With all of that being said, however, sugar alcohols can be artificial - which isn't always great. Because sugar alcohols are not absorbed by the body, they can cause bloating, loose stool, or GI disturbance. Also, some individuals don't lose weight well on sugar alcohols because despite the thought that it shouldn't cause a blood sugar spike, it still does for individuals.
Now I am really confused. Do I try to avoid sugar alcohols or can I eat them?
At the end of the day, whole foods are your best options for the healthiest lifestyle. If you can obtain lean proteins and adequate vegetable intake (fiber) daily with your serving of fruits here and there throughout the week, you are likely going to be your healthiest. This isn’t always a doable and maintainable lifestyle, however. Many of us are busy, have full time jobs, parents to care for, children to tend to, and chaos to manage all of the time. It may not be feasible to cook an organic meal every meal and snack time of the day. In that case, we need to utilize the best options available to us for a quick, sustainable, and healthier meals and snacks which means we may consume sugar alcohols periodically through items like our protein bars, protein shakes, or prepackaged meals.
The Final Thoughts…
Sugar kills you. Sugar is inflammatory. Sugar leads to significant comorbidities. Pasta, rice, potatoes, beans, lentils, bread, sweets, pastries, and fruit (yes, contains sugar and sugar alcohols)… are all sugar. Sugar Alcohols are better than sugar, though not something I would have daily. Limit items with sugar alcohols like ice cream and protein bars to 3 times per week maximum. Our body needs carbohydrates, though if you focus on your lean proteins and your fiber filled carbohydrates (vegetables), your body will thank you. If you utilize packaged convenience foods on an as needed basis, you will be able to maintain your metabolism and are not reversing your progress. Life is about moderation. Stay Mindful.