What are sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols have advantages and disadvantages.

Sugar alcohols are found naturally in plant products, including berries.
Sugar alcohols are found naturally in plant products, including berries.

Sugar alcohols, a sweetener that has about one-half to one-third fewer calories than sugar, are one source of sweet carbohydrates in foods. They taste and look like sugar, but have fewer calories and are called sugar alcohols because their chemical formula is a mixture of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules. Despite the alcohol part of the name, they do not contain any ethanol and are frequently used in the food industry as thickeners and sweeteners. Sugar alcohols can be found in sugar-free or no sugar added products along with in some natural plant products like fruits and berries.

Examples of sugar alcohols are:

  • Erythritol
  • Glycerol
  • Hydrigenated starch
  • Isomalt
  • Lactitol
  • Maltitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol

The American Diabetes Association has identified some advantages and disadvantages of sugar alcohols:


  • Foods with low or reduce calorie sweeteners can have fewer calories than food products made with sugar.
  • Sugar alcohols have less of an effect on blood glucose than other carbohydrates.


  • Many of the food products containing these types of sweeteners still have a significant amount of carbohydrate, calories and fat. It is always important to check the labels.
  • Sugar alcohols in large amounts can have a laxative effect or other gastric symptoms.

Being informed of the advantages and disadvantages of sugar alcohols will help you determine what is best for a balanced diet in your daily life. The Joslin Diabetes Center recommends checking the labels of sugar-free products and finding the total number of carbohydrates per serving and incorporate those carbohydrates into your overall meal plan.

If you would like to learn more about heathy lifestyles, visit USDA’s My Plate page. Michigan State University Extension offers various educational programs for adults, families and children that focus on lifestyle changes to promote healthy eating. For more health and nutrition tips, visit Michigan State University Extension.

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