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What are Sugar Alcohols?
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What Are Sugar Alcohols and Do You Have to Count Them?

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One thing is for sure – sugar alcohols are a part of life when you’re avoiding sugar and keeping your carbs low, especially if you enjoy sweets. And who doesn’t? But, there is a lot of confusion around sugar alcohols. What exactly are they? Are sugar alcohols bad for you? How do you count them into your daily carbs? Do they taste okay or do I get that weird aftertaste? 

This article will cover the basics of sugar alcohols so that you can make better decisions about how to satisfy your sweet tooth.   

What Are Sugar Alcohols?

Sugar alcohols, also called polyhydric alcohols or polyols, are natural sugar replacements. Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate that have chemical compositions similar to sugar and also similar to ethanol, or the alcohol that’s in beverages.

The term sugar alcohol is somewhat misleading: it does not contain alcohol, or sugar, and it doesn’t have the effects of either. You definitely don’t have to show ID to enjoy a no sugar added treat sweetened with a natural sweetener.  

In the food and beverage industry, sugar alcohols are used as a sweetener and to add structure to baked items. Food manufacturers use sugar alcohols to sweeten their foods and beverages without adding to the calorie content of the food. Sugar alcohols activate the tongue’s sweet taste buds, which achieves the desired flavor without extra calories.

Advantages to using sugar alcohols include: 

  • Lower caloric value, comparable to sucrose (table sugar) 
  • Sweet taste without the aftertaste you get with chemical sweeteners
  • Lower glycemic index compared to sugar
  • Prebiotic effects, which could be beneficial to your gut
  • Anticavity properties

List of Sugar Alcohols

Here are the most common sugar alcohols you may find when you read an ingredients label:

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

Are Sugar Alcohols Bad for You? 

As with a lot of foods, some people can consume a lot of sugar alcohols without issue, and other people cannot tolerate certain ones. Depending on the specific sugar alcohol, your microbiome (the ecosystem of microbes in your gut) may ferment them and cause different levels of digestive upset (think stomach cramping, bloating, and gas). 

Most people can avoid discomfort by consuming less than 15 g of sugar alcohols per day. This varies by your individual sensitivities, and your body mass (a larger person can sometimes tolerate more). 

Some people can consume more without discomfort, others tolerate less. Start slow and see how your body reacts before you increase your consumption. 

Potential Side Effects of Sugar Alcohols

Some people will have no side effects from sugar alcohols. Because sugar alcohols are not as digestible as sugar, some people may experience noticeable side effects, including:

  • Nausea
  • Bloating
  • Gas
  • Diarrhea
  • Digestive pains or discomfort
  • Laxative effect

Sugar Alcohols and FODMAPs

In general sugar alcohols should be avoided during the elimination phase of a low-FODMAP diet, with the exception of erythritol. 

Erythritol is different from most sugar alcohols, and it is assimilated differently too. By and large, most of it circulates in the blood, and only a small amount reaches the colon. Erythritol goes into the bloodstream and is ultimately excreted in the urine. Your microbiome does not ferment it, and fermentation is what you’re trying to avoid when doing a low-FODMAP diet. 

Do Sugar Alcohols Count Toward Your Daily Carbs for Keto?

If you’re doing keto or another variety of a low-carb diet, you may have a carbohydrate count that you would prefer not to exceed.  

Since your body metabolizes sugar alcohols differently than sugar, you do not need to count certain sugar alcohols into your daily carb count. If you are diabetic, adhere to your doctor’s advice and protocols with regard to counting your carbohydrates and administering insulin. 

You do not need to count foods sweetened with the following sweeteners toward your daily carbs:

That doesn’t hold true for all sugar alcohols. Because your body metabolizes certain sugars differently, the following do count toward net carbs:

  • Isomalt
  • Glycerin
  • Maltitol
  • Sorbitol

Only about half of your total grams of each of these count toward your keto carb count. So, divide each gram of isomalt, glycerin, maltitol, or sorbitol that you consume by two to get your net carbs from sugar alcohols for that food.