Beware of Sneaky Sugar Alcohols in Food

Understanding sugar alcohols can get tricky, and they are most definitely NOT a treat. With Halloween approaching, many may reach for sugar-free candy, thinking they are making a better choice. Sugar-free candy, like many other foods marketed as "healthier choices," contains sugar alcohols, which are not suitable for us. 

If anyone who knows me personally or has been following my blogs were asked to describe one thing about me, my bet would be this, "He HATES sugars!"

For those who are new to my blogs, there was a series I started early last year about the evils of added sugars. For today's blog, I refer you to submissions that focused on "the farce of sugar substitutes" and "how to cut out sneaky sugars from your diet;" and recently, another one I wrote about the potentially harmful effects of "natural sugars" in packaged foods.

If it were not for our marketing director, who has successfully convinced me that there are other relevant health topics worthy of my input, every single blog topic would be regarding the negative health consequences of added sugars!

Accordingly, I discovered another aspect of the assault of big sugar on the American diet that merits discussion, especially since more research is required to justify its "marketed" health benefits – sneaky sugar alcohols.

Commercially-produced sugar alcohols are self-explanatory: they are sugar with an alcohol attached to it.[i] They are generally not as sweet as regular white sugar, and they have half the calories on average. Some brands with foods containing sugar alcohols market their products as a healthier choice, while others add them in as a sneaky sugar to enhance flavor.

For your benefit, sugar alcohols listed on the labels include lactitol, maltitol, and mannitol, but the most common sugar alcohols are erythritol, sorbitol, and xylitol.

  • halloween themed sugar alcoholsErythritol contains more than two-thirds of the sweetness and 20% of the calories compared to regular sugar. It is used in baked goods, chewing gums, and certain beverages, especially in the "health halo" category.
  • Sorbitol has half the sweetness and half the calories of regular sugar and is used in toothpaste, sugar-free gum, and candy (makes me want to re-consider the baking soda that my mother would make us use to brush our teeth when we ran out of toothpaste as kids!).
  • Xylitol may be the sweetest of the sugar alcohols, yet it only has half the calories of white sugar. It is absorbed slowly and only utilized partially by the body.[ii]

What’s wrong with fewer calories and a little less sweetness? Try digestive problems, addiction and an unknown universe of potential health problems.

Fewer calories are terrific, and that is why I recommend more veggies, fruit and good fats for a healthier diet. In foods containing sugar alcohols, we must confront the same three setbacks as any other food with added sugar.

  • iStock-842100554 closeup of overweight man holding his stomachFirst, sugar alcohols are also low-digestible carbs (LDCs) that cause gastrointestinal problems. Eating considerable amounts of sugar alcohols have been proven to cause nausea and diarrhea, and some like xylitol also cause cramps.
  • Second, and perhaps more importantly, while they may not be as harmful in the short-term as artificial sweeteners and run-of-the-mill added sugars, consuming lots of foods and beverages with sugar alcohols can still lead to sugar cravings. Sugar in all of its forms have addictive qualities, so sugar alcohols could be considered the "gateway drug" that can lead to mindless eating, obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and several other life-threatening conditions.
  • Third, even though you are consuming fewer calories, the brain is expecting more calories once the sweet flavor hits your tongue and releases insulin. The result is that your body will likely end up storing more fat.[iii]

Furthermore, and as mentioned earlier, there is a lack of research. I had a difficult time finding ANY studies on the long-term effects of sugar alcohols. If you think about the long-term effects of saccharin and other sugar substitutes once billed as the next great thing, we should all take a pass on sugar alcohols until we know more

What we know for sure is that regular consumption of sugar alcohols, like other marketed "healthy sweeteners," will lead to freezing your metabolism, increasing your weight, and raising your odds of becoming an addict. 

In the meantime, when deciding how to satisfy your sweet tooth, consider the bounty of great seasonal fruits (and even a few veggies) available.

Saying "NO" to Added Sugars


Sean Browne

Sean Browne

Former Chief Revenue Officer, CCS Medical

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