Sweetener – Sugar Alcohols

In this series, we explore sweeteners. In this post, we cover common sugar alcohols.

Updated October 30, 2023

What are sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols are compounds derived from sugars such as fructose and glucose. Sugar alcohols are found in many reduced-calorie sweetened food products such as gummy bears, chewing gum, frosting, dairy desserts, and more. 

What kinds of sugar alcohols exist?

The most common sugar alcohols found in foods include Subscribe for weekly updates_ go.msu.edu/cris-connect.png

  • Erythritol 
  • Isomalt 
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH) 
  • Lactitol 
  • Mannitol 
  • Sorbitol 
  • Xylitol 

The nutrition label will list any sugar alcohols that may be present in a food or beverage.

Are sugar alcohols the same as alcohol found in liquor and other adult beverages?

No, sugar alcohols do not contain ethanol alcohol , which is the substance found in liquors and drinks that cause inebriation.

Are sugar alcohols all-natural?

Sugar alcohols are found naturally in a variety of fruits and vegetables and can be derived via fermentation from some naturally occurring glucose and sucrose. In fact, some sugar alcohols, such as erythritol, are produced by our bodies.  

Commercially, most sugar alcohols are created from sugars via chemical modification, which is similar to the natural fermentation process and produces final products that are chemically identical to naturally occurring sugar alcohols.

Do sugar alcohols contain calories?

Yes, some sugar alcohols contain calories typically 0.2-3 calories per gram, however, the calories tend to be fewer than common sugars but more than artificial sweeteners.

Are there health benefits from consuming sugar alcohols?

While sugar alcohols do contain some calories, they do not cause the same blood spikes that common sugars cause and can be suitable for individuals with health conditions like diabetes. 

Additionally, there is some research to show that the sugar alcohol xylitol can help prevent cavities and protect oral health when used in chewing gums and hard candies (1,2). 

Are sugar alcohols safe?

Sugar alcohols are safe for most individuals when consumed in moderation. However, if consumed in excess, some sugar alcohols can cause gastrointestinal discomfort and can have a laxative effect (1,2,3). 

What about the sugar alcohol erythritol? Is erythritol safe?

A recent study that made headlines suggested that erythritol could pose a potential health risk related to cardiovascular events. However, the study is not conclusive. 

Erythritol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol we find in fruits, fermented foods (e.g., cheese), and it is naturally produced in our bodies (1). 

The study showed that individuals with elevated erythritol levels were at greater risk for a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke. However, the study is unable to determine whether consuming additional erythritol through foods leads to elevated erythritol levels or if our body naturally produces more erythritol when we’re at risk of a cardiovascular event, which is known to occur. 

Additionally, the individuals who partook in the study had underlying health concerns that put them at greater risk for adverse health outcomes, including cardiac events.   

Epidemiological studies, like the study designed for erythritol, are fantastic tools to help scientists identify areas for future research. But they are not designed to show causation. Rather, they show a correlation. There are also a number of confounding factors that impact epidemiological studies. Confounding factors are unmeasured variables that influence the interpretation of results when attempting to establish a cause-and-effect relationship. 

In short, more studies are needed on erythritol exposure to ensure the safety of individuals who may have underlying conditions that put them at additional risk for a cardiovascular event. 

The good news.

Moderate consumption of sugar alcohols can offer a beneficial strategy for folks aiming to lower their overall sugar intake while still enjoying sweet treats. Sugar alcohols can be a valuable part of a balanced and health-conscious diet, by allowing us to satisfy our sweet cravings without compromising our overall well-being. 

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