Insights & Actions for Healthy Living

What is the difference between sugar and sugar alcohol?

Thanks for that great question. Many people are confused by these different types of ingredients. You will see them listed under carbohydrates on a nutrition facts label when you compare products.

Sugar alcohols are ingredients used as sweeteners and bulking agents. They occur naturally in foods and come from plant products such as fruits and berries. As a sugar substitute, they provide fewer calories (about a half to one-third less calories) than regular sugar. This is because they are converted to glucose more slowly, require little or no insulin to be metabolized and don’t cause sudden increases in blood sugar. This makes them popular among individuals with diabetes; however, their use is becoming more common by just about everyone.

Common sugar alcohols are mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, isomalt, maltitol and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH). Sugar alcohols are not commonly used in home food preparation, but are found in many processed foods.

Food products labeled “sugar-free,” including hard candies, cookies, chewing gums, soft drinks and throat lozenges often consist of sugar alcohols. They are frequently used in toothpaste and mouthwash too.

Sugar alcohols contain less calories (1.5 – 3 calories per gram) than sugar (4 calories per gram), and they do not cause tooth decay like sugar does.

Use with caution! The most common side effect is bloating and diarrhea when sugar alcohols are eaten in excessive amounts. There is also some evidence that sugar alcohols, much like fructose (natural fruit sugar) in fruit and fruit juice can cause a “laxative effect.”

Both contribute calories and should be considered when trying to manage your weight. Moderation with sugar alcohols is still a key since over eating this lower calorie sweetener will still result in weight gain and high blood sugar.

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