I am asked a lot if the sugar alcohols are safe sweeteners. Well, I am not a fan of sugar alcohols when they have been extracted from their natural sources.
With that said, I favor them over aspartame, Splenda, acesulfame-k, or any of the man-made, chemical, fake sugars proven to cause harm to human health.
Sugar alcohols are a by-product of sugar; they are not a sugar from the start.
Part of their structure chemically resembles sugar, and part is similar to alcohol – hence, sugar alcohol. To complicate matters more, these sweeteners are neither sugars nor alcohols.
In marketed products, they are best described as a sugar byproduct refined by nature, not by man.
The downside of the sugar alcohols is that some of the sugar/alcohol may not be absorbed in the blood or broken down into fatty acids in the large intestine, and this can cause carb cravings, sugar binges, and stomach irritation.
People on low-carbohydrate diets, or those who have diabetes, may not respond well to the sugar alcohols in place of other more natural forms of sugar. Sugar alcohols can act as “trigger foods,” and this doesn’t fare well with a diabetic.
Since the intestine does absorb the sugar alcohols, excessive use can cause gas or laxative effects (cramping and diarrhea) similar to reactions to beans and certain high-fiber foods. Such symptoms depend, of course, on an individual’s sensitivity, health status, and what other foods are eaten at the same time.
If reactions occur, your body may be showing you its limit on how much sugar alcohol it really needs by “kicking it out.” So pay attention to reactions like these.
Grey Area Carbs
To me, the sugar alcohols fall into a “grey area” in the sweetener arena because they are actually carbohydrates (starches) more than they are sugars. The various sugar alcohols are typically used cup-for-cup (the same amount) as refined sugar is used, but they each vary in sweetness, ranging from half as sweet to as sweet as sugar.
So, this makes them if-y in my book, and whether they are right for you depends upon your individual circumstances.
Sugar alcohols blend well with other sugars, so they are now commonly added to products such as gums, candies, mints, toothpaste, and mouthwash.
Please keep in mind, these “grey area” sugar alcohols can give you gastric distress if consumed in excess.
These are the sugar alcohols used in many products today:
2. Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates
These sugar alternatives are definitely better than the toxic chemical sugars, like aspartame, but use them conservatively, especially if you get stomach cramping, blood sugar spikes, or simple carb cravings.
So, are sugar alcohols good or bad? Um, they’re if-y.