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  • Maggie Lo

Sugar Alcohols as Natural Sweeteners

Maggie Lo, HK BioTek Intern

What is sugar alcohol?

Sugar alcohols, also named polyhydric alcohols or polyols, are natural sweeteners. They exist naturally in fruits and berries. Sugar alcohols on the market can be manufactured through the hydrogenation of sugars, which adds a hydrogen molecule to the chain of sugar. Therefore, they are like hybrids of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules and resemble the structure of sugar. They could also be manufactured through fermentation, like erythritol obtained through the fermentation of glucose and sucrose. Usually, they could not be found as cooking ingredients in supermarkets to prepare food because they are mainly used in processed foods as natural sweeteners and bulking agents. It is usually found in food products labeled as “sugar-free” or “low sugar” including chewing gum and cookies. Surprisingly, they are also found in oral hygiene products like toothpaste and mouthwash due to xylitol’s properties of protecting the teeth from tooth decay. Although sugar alcohol has the word “alcohol” in it, it has nothing to do with sugar in alcohol drinks because sugar alcohols do not contain ethanol.

List of common sugar alcohols:

  • Sorbitol (E420)

  • Xylitol (‎E967)

  • Maltitol (E965)

  • Isomalt (E953)

  • Lactitol (E966)

  • Mannitol (E421)

  • Erythritol (E968)

  • Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates

Why should we use or consume sugar alcohol instead of regular sugar?

  • The caloric level of sugar alcohol is lower than normal white sugar because it is partially resistant to digestion like fiber. Their calorie content ranges from zero to three calories per gram compared to four calories per gram for regular sugar.

  • It is low GI because sugar alcohols are converted to glucose more slowly in our bodies. The body produces little to no insulin when we consume sugar alcohols. Thus, it stabilizes blood sugar levels.

  • Sugar alcohols do not contribute to tooth decay because bacteria that live in the mouth do not feed on sugar alcohols.

Who benefits from sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols are beneficial to almost everyone because it is low glycemic, allowing blood sugar and insulin levels to be more stable. Also, sugar alcohols are especially beneficial for people with diabetes or people on low-carb diets because they provide fewer calories and have a low glycemic level. Also, this is a great alternative sweetener because it has fewer calories and the sweetness of sugar alcohol is the same or lower than normal sugar, unlike artificial sugars which are a few hundred times sweeter than sugar.

Are sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners the same?

No, sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners are not the same. Although they are both sugar substitutes, artificial sweeteners do not have any calories while sugar alcohols do contain little amounts of calories. Also, artificial sweeteners are not diabetic because they have no carbohydrates and will not cause blood sugar to spike. However, sugar alcohols do contain some carbohydrates and may cause little increases in blood sugar levels if consumed extensively. Next, the sweetness of artificial sugar and sugar alcohol is drastically different as artificial sugar can be hundreds of times sweeter than normal sugar, while sugar alcohol has the same sweetness or less than normal sugar. Lastly, artificial sugar by the name suggests are man-made and could not be found in natural foods because natural sugars cannot have this amount of sweetness. On the other hand, sugar alcohols are natural because they are easily found in fruits and nature.

What are the downsides to using or ingesting foods with sugar alcohol?

  • Due to its partial resistance to digestion, it can cause digestion problems especially if consumed in large amounts. Bloating, gas and diarrhea may occur after ingesting large amounts of sugar alcohol.

  • Those with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or just have a sensitive digestive system want to consider or ask for professional advice before eating and using these sugar alcohols.

  • Large amounts of sugar alcohol are laxative; therefore, it may cause diarrhea.


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