Sugar Alcohols: Sweet and Simple Answers

Ryan Dickey: Microbiologists, Husband, Dad, Doer of Things Healthy.
Last Updated: 02-10-2019

More Alternative Sweeteners?

Artificial and alternative sweeteners often get a bad rap, because they’ve often earned it. Some have been found to be carcinogenic, most have been shown to contribute to diabetes nearly as effectively as sugar, and many come with a slew of side effects that are never reported on the labels.

So why should we trust any of these newer alternative sweeteners coming out now? And just how natural are they really when they’re being produced on an industrial level. Today, we discuss one group of alternative sweeteners that have been charging to the forefront of the sugar-free market, the sugar alcohols.

Yes, sugar alcohols, those alternative sweeteners with the deceptive name. They are called sugars because their chemical structure is close enough to sugar that it gives them their super sweet flavor (our taste buds say “mmm, sugar”, because they don’t know any better), but they are not a sugar (well, not technically, because chemistry says so). And they are called alcohols because they are a class of polyols, which gives them a cooling and alcohol like flavor, but they are not alcohol like you might think of it:  i.e. they won’t get you drunk, so ungrateful.

So what are they?

Sugar alcohols are, in the simplest terms, carbohydrates, yup carbs, we understand carbs right?

They are naturally occurring carbs, found in various fruits, fungi, and plants. Which is why we call them natural sweeteners or alternative sweeteners, but not artificial sweeteners. Because they were not created by humans, although we have found some less than savory ways of manufacturing them.

Now these carbs are fairly unique because they are almost indigestible. That’s right, your body won’t metabolize them like it does other carbohydrates that you consume.

As such, sugar alcohols are beloved by the food industry and by many low carb enthusiasts. Their sweet and cooling flavor combined with their resistance to being metabolized make them seem like an ideal alternative sweetener.

In addition to that, they don’t contribute to tooth decay and may even be good for oral health; with xylitol shown to fight the bad bacteria that cause cavities, and potentially help to improve or even stop the destruction from periodontal disease.

Sounding Pretty Good, Right?

Well, it’s not all sunshine and unicorns. Even though not being easily metabolized might mean they produce fewer calories for your body, it also means that they can cause some serious gut issues when you’ve eaten too much.

Too much too quickly and your body won’t be able to process it fast enough, the result– so much moves through your gut without breaking down at all that it becomes food for the bacteria in your large intestine, which causes symptoms like gas, bloating, indigestion, and diarrhea. (Erythritol is the exception to this rule, causing little to no gut issues for most people).

So, we’ve already learned that:

  • sugar alcohols are polyols
  • that they’re sweet but can also have a cooling and alcohol-like flavor
  • we must be careful with how much we consume, because some of them can cause unpleasant gut troubles.

But Where’s the Science?

Well, first, we need to define some parameters by which to measure the effectiveness of sugar alcohols. And the two industry standards by which all-things-sweet are measured are sucrose, aka table sugar, and glucose, the sugar that your body uses, i.e. your blood-sugar.

Sucrose is said to have a sweetness rating of 100% and is the standard used to measure sweetness. Most sugar alcohols have a lower sweetness than sucrose, and require a larger amount to match the sweetness for recipes. Glucose is only 70% as sweet as sucrose, but is the standard used to measure glycemic index.

Wait, what is a glycemic index?

The Glycemic Index

The glycemic index was developed to place a measurement on how effective different foods are at raising one’s blood-sugar (pronounced: glucose) levels. It runs from 0 to 100 with glucose being assigned a value of 100 and all other foods measured relative to glucose.

For a point of reference, sucrose has a glycemic index of around 65. Sugar alcohols have glycemic index values that range from 0 to about 53, meaning that some sugar alcohols are relatively safe to consume if your aim is to avoid an insulin spike, while others aren’t much better than sugar.

However, research has shown that for some people just eating sweet flavored things can result in an insulin spike regardless of the foods glycemic index, this is a conditioning response because these individual’s bodies have been trained to anticipate the need for insulin after the consumption of sweets. This can then result in a dangerous, low blood-sugar incident if the sweet food didn’t actually contain any glucose fuel to replace what the insulin removed from the blood. Just to clarify, this is only a risk for some people, not all, and is not something that cannot be overcome with time; stop eating sugary sweets and retrain your body.

If you would like to know more about the glycemic index, the university of Sydney has a great site built: www.glycemicindex.com

Beneficial or Harmful?

Beyond the glycemic index we have several other physical side effects that can result from the consumption of different foods, and the effects from sugar alcohols are very different from one to the next. Some are seemingly perfectly safe (like our good friend erythritol), and others could cause heart palpitations or even kill your dog ( we’re looking at you xylitol).

Which leads us to our largest hurdle when it comes to explaining what sugar alcohols are and what they do to our bodies when ingested. They are not just one thing, sugar alcohols are a group of sweeteners, and each one is so different from the next that they can’t be assessed all together.

To help with this, I’ve compiled a list of the most common used sugar alcohols, where I’ve laid out all the relevant information about each.

But, unfortunately, that would make for a very long, very not simple article, so I wrote it as a separate piece. If you’d like to learn more about the sugar alcohols: beyond these sweet and simple answers, check out the follow up post to this one- Sugar Alcohols: The Bitter Truths!.

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