Are sugar alcohols safe?


A client wrote to me a couple weeks ago asking about Erythritol, a sugar alcohol her parents-in-law had purchased as an alternative to refined white sugar.

The package said it was 100% pure, non-GMO, pleasant tasting natural sweetener, great for reduced calorie and sugar-free recipes, zero calories, and low glycemic impact. All the natural sweetness without the nasty side effects. Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it?

Sugar alcohols like Xylitol, Sorbitol, Malitol and Erythritol are becoming increasingly popular as food manufacturers and consumers look for replacements for sugar, high fructose corn syrup and other sugar products that have damaging health implications.

Let’s take a look at the real story behind these new sugar products to see if they are as good as they sound.

What is a sugar alcohol?

All sugar alcohols have the “ol” ending because they are a type of carbohydrate called a polyol. It’s a cross between a a sugar molecule and an alcohol molecule that is mostly undigestible like fibre or resistant starch. These polyols are found naturally in many fruits, and while they are very low calorie and low glycemic, they stimulate the tongue’s sweet taste receptors.

How do they react in our body?

The small amount of research to date on sugar alcohols suggests they cause minimal changes in blood glucose or insulin levels and are low calorie. And they are being used by in many chewing gums because the bacteria on our mouths can’t ferment them so they won’t cause cavities. There is also some early research that shows some benefit on bone and skin health. Due to these reasons they are popular choices for diabetics, those looking to lose weight and for good dental hygiene.

The one area of concern is once they reach the gut they do ferment which can cause digestive issues and symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea and stomach cramps. Studies have shown that for the most part these symptoms slowly reduce over time.

There have been very few safety and toxicity studies done on sugar alcohols, but right now they are generally regarded as safe and many credible sources state they are harmless and could have some health benefits.

Let’s look closer at the most popular sugar alcohols:

Xylitol – Is one of the most popular because it tastes a lot like sucrose (table sugar) has about half the calories, and is 1.6 times as sweet. Xylotiol has minimal effect on blood glucose and none on insulin levels. The most interesting health benefit is it’s effect on dental health and ability to prevent tooth decay. It has also been shown to have positive impacts on bone health and in preventing and treating osteoporosis.

Sorbitol – It’s about half as sweet as sugar and lower in calories, Because it’s a lot less sweet manufacturers have to use more of it to get to the right amount of sweetness. Likewise if you use it at home. These larger amounts can cause digestive distress. At this point there aren’t any known health benefits even thought it doesn’t really affect insulin or blood glucose.

Erythritol – Tastes very similar to sugar, has barely any calories at all and about 60-70% as sweet as sugar. It’s the only sugar alcohol that is absorbed by the body so it has the least amount of digestive side effects. Like the others, Erythritol doesn’t affect blood sugar or insulin and has doesn’t cause tooth decay.

Maltitol – Has the most similarity to sugar in terms of how it feels in your mouth, taste and in cooking. It’s 90% as sweet with half the calories. However, Malitol has been known to cause bloating, gas, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps.

The bottom line

For me, even though there may be some early evidence that these sugar alcohols are safe, I personally don’t feel there have been enough long-term, human studies to prove safety and toxicity over time.

They are also highly processed and for me that’s a red flag. I try to keep my food real, whole and local so I’m suspect of any refined, manufactured products that don’t resemble something from nature.

I do believe from the research, that they are better than artificial sweeteners which have been linked to a whole host of diseases and health implications.

If you are a generally healthy person with strong digestion trying to minimize sugar, then an occasional treat made with a sugar alcohol should be fine. Try it out, experiment for yourself and notice any side effects. Just don’t go overboard or eat them every day.

If you have digestive and gastrointestinal issues like IBS, I would avoid them all together.

If you’ve been challenged by blood sugar issues and think you need to make a shift in your relationship with sugar download my free workbook to help you determine what the next right steps are for you. Also my new 8-week Sugar Shift program will be opening soon. Want to get on the early notification list? Click here. 

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