So you have been advised to limit your sugar consumption by your doctor and your sweet tooth is coming in your way. You are also trying to switch to some kind of sugar alternatives or indulging in foods with artificial sweeteners, but oh! Most of them come with ‘sugar alcohols’, something probably more dangerous than natural sugar, right? WRONG! Sugar alcohols are NOT ‘sugar in alcohols’, which you might have been thinking about them since past years. Let’s unlock the truth about sugar alcohols, their types, advantages, disadvantages, and above all whether they are good or bad for you through this post:
About Sugar Alcohol
Although the name of this highly popular sugar alternative is ‘sugar alcohol’ (polyol), it neither contains sugar nor alcohol. The substance is basically a type of carbohydrate (mainly ‘sweet’ carb) named after its unique molecular structure, which is nothing but a hybrid of sugar molecule and alcohol molecule. It looks just like the white crystals of table sugar and tastes alike too, but is digested or metabolized poorly in the body. While plain sugar comes with lots of calories and artificial sweeteners are totally free of them, sugar alcohols have considerably fewer calories than its regular counterparts. However, studies have proved that they are actually safe for us and can impact our health quite positively.
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Sources Of Sugar Alcohol
The natural sources of sugar alcohols are various berries, fruits and vegetables. But they are mostly processed industrially from glucose, sucrose and starches. Therefore, sugar alcohols can be found in commercially available food products (sugar-free and reduced-sugar) such as cookies, candies, ice creams, chocolates, protein bars, soda, chewing gums, baked items, desserts, fruit spreads, oral health products (toothpaste, mouth freshener, mouthwashes), OTC medications (cough syrup, chewable vitamins, throat lozenges), sports nutrition products (powders, supplements), and so on.
Different Types Of Sugar Alcohol
As said before, most of the food products with labels like ‘sugar-free’ or ‘no sugar added’ contain sugar alcohols, which can primarily be classified in the following types:
- Erythritol (0.2 calories/gram)
- Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (3.0 calories/gram)
- Isomalt (2.0 calories/gram)
- Lactitol (2.0 calories/gram)
- Maltitol (2.1 calories/gram)
- Mannitol (1.6 calories/gram)
- Sorbitol (2.6 calories/gram)
- Xylitol (2.4 calories/gram)
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While all of these are used as sweeteners, the details of the most commonly used ones are given below:
It is the healthiest sugar alcohol that is extremely tasty, nearly free of calories (only 5%), non-laxative and 70% as sweet as plain sugar. A huge amount (almost 90%) of erythritol gets absorbed in the bloodstream and hence, doesn’t affect the gastrointestinal system that much. Moreover, it enhances our oral health significantly.
Unlike erythritol, this sugar alcohol has a laxative effect and it causes very mild digestive side effects due to poor absorption. However, maltitol is known to be 80% as sweet as sugar with half (around 47%) of its calorie content. In addition, it promotes healthy gut bacteria, reduces the secretion of insulin, and improves our oral health.
The unique mint flavor of xylitol makes it different from all other sugar alcohols. It tastes as sweet as plain sugar, but the calorie content almost 40% lower than that. Though xylitol is tolerated well by our body, it should be consumed in moderation in order to prevent gastrointestinal side effects.
Sorbitol tastes 60% as sweet as table sugar and holds 60% of its calorie content. The sugar alcohol is found to have least effects on our blood sugar levels, but can take a toll on our digestive system.
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Why Sugar Alcohol Is Good For You?
Sugar alcohols, if used the right way, can bring a lot of health benefits to us. We tell you how:
- They contain fewer calories than regular sugar crystals. It essentially impacts the levels of glucose in our bloodstream in a less significant manner than other regular carbohydrates.
- They get absorbed in our body neither readily nor completely. A certain percentage of each of the sugar alcohols passes into our bloodstream while rest is excreted. Furthermore, the absorbed sugar alcohols use very little amount of insulin for the production of energy. These help in maintaining normal blood sugar levels, which is essential for effective management of diabetes.
- They have very low Glycemic Index (GI), which prevents sudden spikes in blood glucose or insulin. It not only keeps blood sugar levels under control, but also helps our body fight against metabolic syndrome.
- They make our oral health better instead of causing tooth decay as the bacteria inside our mouth cavity can’t make them fermented upon contact. Certain sugar alcohols like xylitol are even proved to have qualities of inhibiting the growth of oral bacteria.
While sugar alcohols are mostly associated with measurable health benefits, they should not be consumed in large amounts. It has been seen that excess intake of these sweet carbohydrates can lead to abdominal gas, bloating, flatulence, cramps, diarrhea, dehydration, fluctuation in blood glucose levels, etc.