Sugar alcohols are a type of low-calorie sweetener that turn up in all sorts of diet foods in our food supply. When you chew sugar free gum or eat sugar free candy, you’re almost certainly containing sugar alcohols.
Despite their name, sugar alcohols contain neither sugar nor alcohol. Sugar alcohols are a classification of carbohydrates that are different from artificial sweeteners like aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet’n Low) or sucralose (Splenda) which contribute no calories. Sugar alcohols yield between 0.2-2.7 calories per gram, although they are so intensely sweet they can be used in such small quantities that they sweeten without contributing many calories.
The sugar alcohols most readily seen on today’s food ingredient lists include those that end in “-ol”, such as:
Short of allowing you to ingest sweet-tasting foods with a reduced caloric burden, sugar alcohols are not necessarily worth adding to your diet for any added benefit, although what they protect against may be of interest: tooth decay.
The FDA has an approved health claim for sugar alcohols, saying that, “Frequent between-meal consumption of foods high in sugars and starches promotes tooth decay. The sugar alcohol in [name of food] does not promote tooth decay.”
The drawback with sugar alcohols is that they can lead to gastrointestinal distress and have a laxative effect. If you’ve ever found your stomach hurting after eating sugar free jelly beans or sugar free chocolate, you have sugar alcohols to thank.
Sugar alcohols are not entirely absorbed or digested by the human gut. Rather, they are fermented in your large intestine, which can cause gas or diarrhea in some people.
Your best bet is to consume any food with sugar alcohols in moderation. Just because a candy or chocolate is “sugar-free” certainly does not mean it is calorie-free. Sugar free desserts are often loaded with refined grains and other empty calories.
You – and your gut – may be better off just having a smaller slice of the real thing!