What are sugar alcohols? Sugar alcohols contain less calories than sugar and are used as sugar alternatives. Read on, to know sugar alcohol side effects and the products which contain sugar alcohols.
Sugar alcohols are used as sugar substitutes in sugar-free and low-sugar foods. Despite the name ‘sugar alcohols’, they contain neither sugar nor alcohol. They are carbohydrates by nature and their structures match the structures of sugar and alcohol.
Sugar alcohols are also known as polyols. One gram of table sugar (sucrose) or fructose or lactose contains 4 calories while one gram of sugar alcohol contains 0 – 3 calories (average 1.5 calories per gram). Thus they contain less calories than sugar. Foods containing sugar alcohols are labeled as ‘sugar free’. Sugar alcohols can be termed as reduced calorie sweeteners or sugar substitutes.
Side effects of Sugar Alcohol
Fluctuations in Blood Sugar Levels
Though sugar alcohols promote stable blood sugar levels, they are many times used in larger quantities because they are not as sweet as sugar. So, they might have the same impact on blood sugar levels as sugar. The manufacturers should mention the ‘sugar alcohol count’ on the product labels.
Since sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed by the digestive system, excessive consumption of sugar alcohols can result in bloating, flatulence and diarrhea. Fermentation of sugar substitutes (as they are not completely absorbed) leads to digestive system problems. Nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, abdominal pain, diarrhea and dehydration are some of the common side effects of sorbitol. Erythritol does not cause any side effect because it is absorbed in the small intestine.
Some people may exhibit allergic reactions after consumption of sugar alcohols. Some may not be able to tolerate the sugar substitute. Stomach pain, bloating, and general discomfort can be the symptoms of food intolerance. In some cases, it has been noticed that the body gets adjusted to the new substance after continued use. But the sweetener should be consumed in very small quantity. For homemade recipes, it is better to use natural sugar substitutes like honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, etc.
The side effects may vary from person to person, depending upon the overall health of the person. It is estimated that if you consume more than 20 g mannitol or more than 50 g sorbitol in a day, then you are likely to suffer from diarrhea. So, sugar-free or low-sugar foods that contain sugar alcohols should be consumed in limited quantities only (like food with sugar).
Those who are suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or any other gastrointestinal condition and those who have undergone gastric bypass surgery should not consume sugar alcohols or should consume only a small quantity with extra care. This would help avoid worsening of the condition. Although artificial sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin contain zero calories (no carbohydrates, so no effect on blood sugar levels), they should not be consumed in large quantities as they exhibit similar side effects.
Common Sugar Alcohols
Sugar alcohols do not contain ‘ethanol’ that is present in alcoholic drinks. Here are some examples of commonly used sugar alcohols:
- Erythritol (0.2)
- Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH) (3.0)
- Isomalt (2.0)
- Lactitol (2.0)
- Maltitol (2.1)
- Sorbitol (2.6)
- Xylitol (2.4), etc.
The figures in the bracket indicate calories/gram. Sweetness of sugar alcohols compared to sugar is different for every variety. So the amount of sugar substitutes used may vary from dish to dish, depending upon the requirement. Fruits and vegetables contain natural sugar alcohols.
Sugar alcohols do not cause tooth decay and so are good for sugarless mints and chewing gum. Being low in calories, they promote weight loss. When consumed in small quantity, they help avoid sudden rise and fall in blood sugar levels. Thus, they cause less fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Sugar alcohols in hard candies or chewing gum produce a cooling sensation in the mouth as a result of heat absorbing reaction. But, the amount of sugar alcohols in your diet needs to be monitored.
These days, protein bars, ice creams and sweets, that contain sugar alcohols, are available for diabetics and for those who want to follow a low carb diet. Use of sugar substitutes like saccharin or aspartame may prove to be beneficial for diabetics; but it should be noted that excessive consumption of sugar substitutes usually leads to side effects. Such sweeteners are present in many processed foods, hard candies, cookies, chewing gums, soft drinks, throat lozenges, toothpastes and mouthwash solutions, etc.
People generally read the term ‘sugar-free’ and buy the product. But they should read the number of carbohydrates and calories in the product. Keeping in mind the acceptable daily intake of sugar substitutes, you should check each and every label. More studies are required to prove the safety of sugar alcohols. Till then, they should be consumed in small quantities and with caution.
Disclaimer: This article is for informative purposes only, and should not be used as a replacement for expert medical advice.