How Sugar Alcohols Fit Into Your Diabetes Meal Plan

Where Sugar Alcohols Are Found and How to Use Them

Sugar-free jellybeans. Credit Stockbyte/Getty Images

If you read the ingredients list of a sugar-free candy or chewing gum you're likely to see words like maltitol, xylitol and sorbitol. These are sugar alcohols. Despite the name, sugar alcohols are neither sugar nor alcohol. They are a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate sweetener often used in foods targeted for people with diabetes.

Why Are Sugar Alcohols Used in Food?

Sugar alcohols, also called polyols, are a type of carbohydrate.

 

One of the main reasons sugar alcohols are used in foods created for people with diabetes is that they are slowly absorbed into the body and only partially metabolized. This incomplete absorption doesn’t usually raise blood sugar as much as a typical carbohydrate.

Remember to Check Total Carbohydrates

Just because a food contains sugar alcohols, doesn't mean it's a free food. They are sometimes combined with other ingredients in a product that may raise blood sugar. So it's important to carefully read the nutrition facts label for the total number of carbohydrates number per serving to ensure that you are staying within your designed meal plan.

Types of Sugar Alcohols

Some sugar alcohols are derived naturally from plants (sorbitol from corn syrup and mannitol from seaweed), but they are mostly manufactured from sugars and starches and then processed into a wide variety of foods. In addition to adding sweetness, they add texture and help retain moisture.

 

You can determine if a food has one or more sugar alcohols by checking the product’s ingredients on the packaging food label. Sugar alcohols usually end in "-ol." The most common sugar alcohols include:

  • Sorbitol
  • Mannitol
  • Xylitol
  • Maltitol
  • Lactitol
  • Erythritol
  • Isomalt
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates

Most sugar alcohols are less sweet than table sugar (sucrose), but maltitol and xylitol rival sucrose in their degree of sweetness.

Advantages of Sugar Alcohols

Using sugar alcohols may have a role in helping to manage both weight and blood sugars.

Low-calorie sweeteners made from sugar alcohols can add a sweet flavor, without extra calories, to coffee and tea. You may also be able to use them in recipes in place of sugar.

Xylitol, a sugar alcohol often used to sweeten sugar-free gum, has actually been proven to prevent cavities.

Disadvantages of Sugar Alcohols

Because sugar alcohols are only partially digested, they can cause abdominal gas and discomfort in some people. Consuming too much food that contains sugar alcohol can have a laxative effect. Notice how your body reacts to sugar alcohols and cut them out of your diet if they seem to cause a problem.

Sometimes sugar-free foods might compensate by using more fat, or generally use other ingredients. As a result, you may not be saving on either calories or carbohydrates by going for the sugar-free version of a food. Make sure to check labels to make the best choice. It's also important to remember that just because a food is sugar-free, doesn't make it "free." Be careful not to overestimate portions of sugar-free foods, thinking that they don't really "count" that much anyway.

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