With the rising rates of diabetes, food manufacturers are striving to make products that have fewer carbohydrates yet still are appetizing. In an attempt to accomplish this, they are including sugar alcohols in some items. However, consumers are still worried about whether these items are healthy and worth the extra money they cost.
What are Sugar Alcohols?
Sugar alcohols, also called polyols, are a type of lower calorie sweetener used as a substitute for some or all of the sugar in different foods. The name may be confusing since they do not contain the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages. Sugar alcohols are only partially digested, so they provide about half of the calories and carbohydrates that sugar provides: 2 calories per gram of sugar alcohol versus 4 calories per gram of sugar.
Where are Sugar Alcohols Found?
Sugar alcohols are found in many sugar free and reduced sugar foods, including sugar free gums, ice cream, cookies and candy bars. If there are sugar alcohols in a food, they may or may not be listed on the Nutrition Facts label. If they are listed, they will be found under Total Carbohydrates. If they are not listed, they will be in the ingredients section of the food label. Common sugar alcohols include isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol. They usually end in –ol.
Choosing foods with sugar alcohols instead of sugar may be beneficial to people with, or at risk for, diabetes because sugar alcohols provide the sweetness of sugar with less carbohydrates and calories. According to Madelyn Wheeler, R.D. and Dr. Pi-Sunyer in the April 2008 Journal of the American Dietetic Association, in both people with and without diabetes, sugar alcohols do not raise post-meal blood glucose levels as much as sugar.
Since sugar alcohols are only partially digested, they may cause a laxative effect. If consumed in large quantities, they may also cause gas, bloating and abdominal pain. This effect depends on the type of food consumed and the individual. The American Dietetic Association recommends limiting sugar alcohol intake to less than 50 grams per day to avoid ill effects. If you think you may be sensitive to sugar alcohols, start with a very small amount, and slowly increase your intake.
Since sugar alcohols only provide about half of the carbohydrates, diabetics who count carbohydrates for insulin dosing may overestimate the amount of carbohydrates eaten. To avoid this, subtract half of the sugar alcohols from the total carbohydrates in that item.
Even though foods with sugar alcohols do not raise post meal blood sugars as much as sugar, there is no evidence that shows the average amount of sugar alcohols eaten in a day has any effect on long term blood sugar levels on people with diabetes.
It is important to realize “sugar free” does not mean free of all carbohydrates, so it is still important to look at the amount of total carbohydrates on the Nutrition Facts label. Also, some items that contain sugar alcohols actually have more fat and calories than the original item, so pay attention to these as well. Ask your doctor or registered dietitian for advice on incorporating sugar alcohols into your diet.