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Natural sweeteners 101: Sugar alcohols (sweetener)

sugar alcohol

With so many products on the market these claiming to be a healthy alternative to sugar, it can be a little tough to figure out which ones to trust… and which to avoid. 

We’ve recently been looking at some of the most common sugar alternatives out there. Here’s what you need to know about… the sugar alcohols. 

What is a sugar alcohol? 

Sugar alcohols are a category of carbohydrates that (as the name suggests) are basically a hybrid of sugar and alcohol molecules. 

Their structure allows them to stimulate the taste receptors for sweetness on your tongue, so they look and taste like sugar, but have fewer calories. They’re also partially resistant to digestion, so they sort of act more like dietary fibre. 

Sugar alcohols are increasingly used as a sweet alternative to sugar in foods, the most common of which are xylitol (found naturally in fruits and vegetables) and erythritol (produced by fermenting the glucose in corn starch).

Sugar alcohol benefits 

Both xylitol and erythritol have been pretty well researched and are widely considered a safe alternative for the sweet stuff.

Xylitol is about as sweet as regular sugar but has 40% fewer calories and no fructose (the sugar scientists are usually talking about in relation to negative health impacts. It also has a much lower GI that sugar, so has less of an impact on your blood sugar levels.

Interestingly, there’s some science to suggest this Xylitol has a protective effect on your gum health. The unfriendly bacteria in your mouth feed on xylitol like they would sugar. But they’re actually unable to metabolise it, so they get all clogged up and their growth slows right down.

Erythritol is also fructose-free. It has around 70% of the sweetness of sugar with 5% of the calories and has a bonus GI of zero.

Sugar alcohol drawbacks

The major issue with sugar alcohols is some people just don’t tolerate them particularly well when it comes to digesting them. 

Because they’re quite resistant to the body’s digestion processes, they wind up in your large intestine in large amounts, where your gut bacteria goes to town on them. Hello bloating, tummy pains and gas. 

Erythritol acts slightly differently as it doesn't reach your large intestine in significant amounts. Instead, most of it gets absorbed into your bloodstream and flushed out by the kidneys.

The takeaway?

Sugar alcohols are generally okay in small amounts and we’d opt for them over artificial sweeteners or a high sugar content any day.

But if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, FODMAP issues or just a sensitive tum, you may want to consider avoiding most sugar alcohols. Though erythritol should be okay in smaller doses.