Have you ever read a nutrition label on something in the grocery store and noticed “Sugar Alcohols” listed under the Total Carbohydrates heading? Yes, that would imply that you have actually taken time to look at what’s in that box of cereal you are buying. My guess is most of you have seen this at some point, but are unsure of what a sugar alcohol really is. I have actually had a few people ask me recently what they are, so here is a very basic guide to sugar alcohols.
*Note: I am a genius, but not a nutritionist. If this doesn’t answer your questions or make sense, do some research on your own.
Sugar alcohols are a form of carbohydrates known as polyols. They occur naturally in some foods and are also found in some fruits and plants. While some occur naturally, many are manufactured from starches and sugars. They’re chemical makeup is kind of hybrid, similar to both sugar and alcohol, hence the name sugar alcohols. They’re used primarily as artificial sweeteners and bulking agents. As you can imagine, since many sugar alcohols are manufactured from natural sources, they are found mainly in processed foods such as chewing gum, protein bars, cookies, candies, throat lozenges, and toothpaste.
WHAT THEY DO: Sugar alcohols are used primarily as artificial sweeteners. Now, like most health professionals, when I hear things like processed food and artificial sweetener, I simply turn and walk away (WOOSAH!!) But, we are presented with a unique case here. Sugar alcohol provides us with an artificial sweetener that is not only LOWER in caloric content than sucrose (pure sugar), but is also not completely absorbed by the body. So, what on earth does this mean??? Well, simply put, it doesn’t have near the effect on blood sugar that a normal sugar would. Alcohols come in a wide variety, and the chart at the bottom of this article does a great job of showing the different effect of each alcohol when compared to pure sugar. These are still sugars, and artificial ones at that. But, as you can see, they can offer a “less unhealthy” option in terms of caloric content and sweetness when compared to real sugar.
WHAT THEY DON’T DO: Contrary to the name, they won’t make you drunk. If that was the case I would be eating Met-Rx Protein bars like they were going out of style. One side effect of these alcohols, though, is the possibility of bloating and constipation if eaten in excess. Remember when I said that they’re not completely absorbed by the human body?? Well, they don’t just disappear. They float around in the intestines until we decide it’s time to make a trip to the bathroom. So, as with all other foods, moderation is key. Just because they are lower in calories than real sugar doesn’t mean we should over-consume them. Because, trust me, when it comes to constipation, AIN’T NOBODY GOT TIME FOR THAT!!!!
So, there ya go… Everything you could ever want to know about sugar alcohols. How exciting, right??? If you still have some questions, here is another good article with some helpful hints.