Q: I see “sugar alcohol” listed on some food labels. What is this?
A: Also called polyols, sugar alcohols are reduced-calorie sweeteners used in many “diet” foods—from candies and jams to baked goods and ice cream—as well as in sugar-free gums, cough drops, mouthwashes, toothpastes, and other products. Small amounts are found naturally in plant foods.
Though they resemble sugars and alcohol in chemical structure, sugar alcohols are actually carbohydrates that the body does not fully digest. Thus, they provide fewer calories (0.2 to 3.0 per gram) than sugar (4 per gram). They are not alcoholic. You can usually identify them by their “-ol” endings—as in sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, maltitol, and erythritol—though isomalt and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates are also sugar alcohols.
Added sugar alcohols are always listed by name in the ingredients. If a product makes a “sugar-free” or “no sugar added” claim, however, sugar alcohols must be included in the Nutrition Facts panel, under “Total Carbohydrates.”
Because they are slowly and incompletely absorbed, sugar alcohols have less effect on blood sugar—so, in moderation, they are helpful for people with diabetes. They don’t promote cavities, either. And with fewer calories, sugar alcohols may help in weight control, though foods that contain them are not necessarily low-calorie (or healthful), and none are calorie-free.
A downside is that large amounts can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea, since bacteria in the intestines ferment what is not absorbed. And you may inadvertently consume too much, since they are in so many products. Some, but not all, products carry a warning not to exceed a certain amount.