If you have ever looked at the wrapper of your chewing gum carefully, you may have noticed sugar alcohol listed as one of the ingredients. Sugar alcohols have been used as an alternative to sugar for many decades.  They occur naturally in many fruits and vegetables. Also, several industries produce it from sugars. The most common question is – is sugar alcohol bad for our health? Probably, no. Not only sugar alcohols are lower in calories as compared to sugars, but they also have many health benefits. Read on to learn more about these sugar substitutes and their health effects.

What is sugar alcohol?

Sugar alcohols, also known as polyalcohols, polyhydric alcohols, alditols or glycitols, are organic compounds that are derived from sugar.  They comprise a class of polyols and are like hybrids of sugar and alcohol molecules.

Sugar alcohols look quite similar to sugar as they are white crystals. Despite the name alcohol, they do not contain ethanol.

Many fruits and vegetables contain sugar alcohols. However many sugar alcohols are manufactured. They are sweeteners and have half the calories of natural sugars. Many processed food labelled sugar-free include sugar alcohols.

Some of the common sugar alcohols are Glycerol, Erythritol, Threitol, Arabitol, Xylitol, Ribitol, Mannitol, Sorbitol, Galactitol, Fucitol, Iditol, Inositol, etc. However, sorbitol and xylitol are popular sugar alcohols in commercially available foods.

Common sugar alcohols

Many different types of sugar alcohols that are used in processed foods. Let us learn more about them.

Sorbitol

Sorbitol is made from the dextrose produced from cornstarch. It is prepared by hydrogenating the recovered cornstarch. Sorbitol is almost 60 percent as sweet as sugar and has 2.6 calories per gram.

Candies, flavoured jam, jelly spreads, baked goods, chewing gum and cough drops contain sorbitol. It has minimal effect on blood sugar and insulin but can have a laxative effect if taken in excess.

Mannitol

Mannitol is present in fruits and vegetables like strawberries, celery, onions, mushrooms and pumpkins. For commercial purposes, mannitol is manufactured from fructose.

Mannitol is 60 percent as sweet as sugar and contains 1.6 calories per gram. While it is principally used in pharmaceutical applications, it is also used in candies, jams, jelly spreads, frosting, chewing gums and cough drops.

Maltitol

Maltitol is made by hydrogenating sugar maltose. It tastes quite similar to sugar. It is 90 as sweet as sugar and contains 2.1 calories per gram. It is well absorbed in the body and does not cause blood sugar spikes.

Xylitol

Xylitol is a common sugar alcohol which has a very distinctive mint flavour. This unique flavour makes it a popular choice for sugar-free chewing gum, candies and chewable vitamins.

Xylitol is almost as sweet as sugar but has 40 percent of the calories of sugar. It can cause some digestive problems if consumed in large amounts.

Erythritol

Erythritol is manufactured from cornstarch. It is produced by fermenting the glucose in cornstarch. It is 70 percent as sweet as sugar but has only 5 percent of the calories.

It has a cooling effect in the mouth and is used in confectionary, baked products, chewing gums and some beverages. It does not have the same side effects as other sugar alcohols as it does not reach the large intestine.

Erythritol gets absorbed into our bloodstream and is excreted unchanged.

Isomalt

Isomalt is manufactured from sugar. Isomalt is the mixture of two disaccharides, glucose-sorbitol and glucose-mannitol. Isomalt is 50 percent as sweet as sugar and has two calories per gram.

We use it in hard and soft candies, chocolate, ice-cream, jams, fondants, chewing gums and cough drops.

Lactitol

Lactitol is manufactured from whey. It is slightly less than 50 percent the sweetness of sugar and has two calories per gram. It is used in sugar-free products like chewing gums, candies and frozen desserts.

It is helpful in the digestive process as it has shown to promote the growth of two bacteria which improve the health of the large intestine.

Hydrogenated starch hydrolysate

Partial hydrolysis of starch produces hydrogen starch hydrolysates. They are 20 to 50 percent as sweet as sugar. They are blended with other sweeteners.

Affect of sugar alcohol on blood sugar and insulin

Glycemic index is the measure of how quickly a particular food raises the blood sugar levels. Consuming food that has high glycemic index can lead to obesity and other metabolic health issues.

Sugar alcoholGlycemic index
Sorbitol4
Mannitol2
Maltitol35
Xylitol12
Erythritol1
Isomalt2
Lactitol3
Hydrogenated starch hydrolysate35

 

Natural sugar has a glycemic index of 65, and the glycemic index of glucose is 100. As you can see compared to glucose and sugar, the glycemic index of most sugar alcohols is pretty low.

So, sugar alcohol is an excellent alternative for those people who are pre-diabetic, diabetic or have metabolic syndrome.

Health benefits of sugar alcohol

Sugar alcohol does have a range of benefits on our health.

Prevents tooth decay

We all know that sugar consumption can lead to tooth decay. Sugar feeds bacteria in the mouth. These bacteria multiply, secrete acids and erode the tooth enamel.

Sugar alcohols like xylitol, erythritol and sorbitol, on the other hand, prevent tooth decay. The bacteria in our mouth can’t break down these sugar alcohols, so no acid is produced.

This property of sugar alcohol is the reasons why manufacturers use sugar alcohols in chewing gums and tubes of toothpaste.

Xylitol is primarily known for its beneficial effects on dental health (1). According to one research, scientists discovered that xylitol inhibits the growth and metabolism of several oral bacteria species (2).

According to another study done of 485 school children, erythritol is more effective in preventing dental caries than xylitol and sorbitol (3).

Improves digestive health

Sugar alcohol, like lactitol, may feed the friendly bacteria in the gut and have a prebiotic effect. Lactitol is helpful in the digestive process as it has shown to promote the growth of two bacteria which improve the health of the large intestine (4).

Protects against osteoporosis

According to a study done on rats, xylitol supplementation helps preserve bone mineral content and trabecular bone volume (5).  So, xylitol may be useful in preventing osteoporosis.

Improves skin health

Collagen is the main structural protein in skin and connecting tissues. According to specific studies, xylitol supplementation can increase collagen production in rats (6).

Side effects of sugar alcohol

Digestive problems

If we take sugar alcohol in large quantities, then the most common side effects are gas, bloating and diarrhoea. Some sugar alcohols also have a laxative effect.

If you have irritable bowel syndrome, you should avoid sugar alcohol. Sugar alcohol, when taken in large quantities can also cause weight gain.

Sorbitol and maltitol have the highest number of side effects; erythritol has the least.

Harmful to dogs

If you have a pet dog, keep him away from xylitol. This sugar alcohol is highly toxic to dogs. When dogs eat xylitol, their body starts producing excessive insulin, and this can lead to hypoglycaemia and can be fatal for your pet (7).

Best sugar alcohol – Erythritol is the clear winner

Of all the sugar alcohols, erythritol is the best when it comes to positive health effects. It has almost no calories, does not affect blood sugar and has the least number of side effects. Erythritol is more effective in preventing dental caries than xylitol and sorbitol. It is also low in calories and tastes great.