Sweet Sugar Alcohols - Maybe, Maybe Not

Sweet Sugar Alcohols - Maybe, Maybe Not

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, that is. Sugar alcohols are actually made from sugars; they are not a form of 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.

To me, sugar alcohols fall into a "grey area" in the sweetener arena because they are actually carbohydrates (starches) more than they are sugars. They are typically used cup-for-cup in the same amount as refined sugar, 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 commonly added to products such as gums, candies and mints, toothpaste and mouthwash. Please keep in mind, these "grey area" sugar alcohols can give people gastric distress if consumed in excess. If-y.

Included in this grey area group are:
1. Erythritol
2. Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates
3. Isomalt
4. Lactitol
5. Maltitol
6. Mannitol
7. Sorbitol
8. Xylitol

Sugar alcohols are used in a wide range of low-calorie, low-fat and sugar-free foods from baked goods to frozen dairy desserts since they provide bulk without all the calories of sugar. Sugar alcohols do not commonly promote tooth decay, so are used in toothpastes, mouthwashes, breath mints and pharmaceuticals such as cough syrups, cough drops and throat lozenges.

The downside of sugar alcohols are 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 or sugar binges. People on low-carbohydrate diets or those who have diabetes may not respond well to the sugar alcohols in place of other 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 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.

Another positive way to look at it-your body may be showing you its limit on how much sugar it really needs by "kicking out" too much. So pay attention to reactions like these.

The list below provides a summary of each of the more popular sugar alcohols used in U.S. food products. Nutrition labels include them as either "Sugar Alcohols" or under their individual name.

1. Erythritol is an odorless white, crystalline powder with a clean sweet taste approximately seventy percent as sweet as sugar. Like most sugar alcohols, erythritol does not promote tooth decay. It has approximately seven percent to thirteen percent the calories of other sugar alcohols and five percent the calories of sugar. Because erythritol is rapidly absorbed in the small intestine and rapidly eliminated by the body (within twenty-four hours), laxative side effects are sometimes associated with excessive use.

2. Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates (HSH) are a mixture of sorbitol, maltitol and hydrogenated oligosaccharides. Depending on the type of HSH desired (the maltitol and sorbitol content can be varied), the sweetness of HSH varies from twenty-five percent to fifty percent that of sucrose. HSH sweeteners are used in a wide variety of candies, gums and mints. Also known as maltitol syrup and hydrogenated glucose syrup. Just remember to read your labels!

3. Isomalt is a complex carb (one of the better sugars) and approximately forty-five percent to sixty-five percent as sweet as sucrose. Isomalt is used in candies, gums, ice cream, jams and jellies, fillings and frostings, beverages and baked products. As a sweetener/bulking agent, it has no off-flavors and works well in combination with other sweeteners.

4. Lactitol is a sweet-tasting complex carb (another good sugar) derived from lactose. Lactitol provides the bulk and texture of sugar with half the calories. Thirty percent to forty percent as sweet as sucrose, it is used in: baked goods, chewing gum, confections and frostings, frozen dairy desserts and mixes, candy, jams and jellies.

5. Maltitol is a complex carb produced by the hydrogenation of maltose, the sugar found naturally in sprouted grain. It occurs widely in nature in chicory and roasted malt. About 0.9 times as sweet as sucrose with similar sweetness and body, maltitol is suitable for many kinds of candies, gums and mints, and is particularly good for candy coating.

6. Mannitol is a simple carb (simple sugar), approximately 0.7 times as sweet as sucrose. Used as a bulking agent in powdered foods and as a dusting agent for chewing gum (interesting!), excessive consumption of more than twenty grams a day may have a laxative effect. Mannitol has been removed from the GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) list, and is regulated as an interim "food additive." This means that its current use is considered safe, but some questions have been raised that must be resolved to fully determine what limitations, if any, should be imposed. Mannitol is permitted for use in many countries, including the United States.

Sorbitol (see below) and mannitol are readily converted in the body to fructose and glucose. The problem with these sweeteners is they are slowly absorbed from the intestines and may produce a laxative or gaseous effect, and may affect blood sugar levels more than the other sugar alcohols, so they may not be the best choice for diabetics.

7. Sorbitol is another simple carb sixty percent as sweet as sucrose. Excessive consumption of more than fifty to eighty grams a day may have a laxative effect. Sorbitol is also a sugar alcohol the body uses slowly. It is called a nutritive sweetener because it actually has four calories in every gram, just like table sugar. Sorbitol is found naturally in fruits and is an ingredient in many sugar-free gums, sugar-free breath mints and dietetic candies.

Did you know that sorbitol is also produced by your body? Too much sorbitol in your cells can cause damage, though. Diabetic retinopathy and neuropathy may be related to too much sorbitol in the cells of the eyes and nerves.

And here is a word of caution if you have IBS or similar health issues: some foods contain sugars that are absorbed slowly, such as fructose in fruit juice or sorbitol in low-calorie sweets. Through a process called osmosis, these unabsorbed sugars hold onto water in the intestines, which sometimes leads to diarrhea. By reading labels, people with chronic non-infectious diarrhea can easily avoid fruit juice, fructose and sorbitol to see if this eliminates the problem.

8. Xylitol seems to be the "favored child" of the sugar alcohols, well for manufacturers, anyway. Xylitol is a simple carb, though, extracted from birch tree pulp. The wood sugar "xylose" was first hydrogenated to produce xylitol in 1891 by the German chemist Emil Fischer. Xylitol has been used since the 1960s in the Soviet Union, Germany, Switzerland and Japan as a favored sweetener for diabetics. Xylitol is also used intravenously for patients with impaired glucose tolerance, i.e. for trauma, burns, and in diabetic and insulin-resistant states.

Xylitol is a naturally-occurring sweetener also found in:
1. Raspberries
2. Strawberries
3. Plums
4. Corn
5. Endive
6. Mushrooms

Xylitol does not require insulin to metabolize in the body and does not promote tooth decay. Xylitol has the same sweetness, bulk and caloric value as sucrose, so it is one of the most popular sweetener alternatives used in candies, chewing gum and natural-ingredient toothpastes, foods such as gum drops and hard candy, and in pharmaceuticals and oral health products.

Because xylitol helps prevent plaque and cavities, it is a better choice for sugarless gums than aspartame or sucralose. But in the long term, you are better off using neither sugar nor natural unprocessed sugars. As with most sugar alcohols, consumers with hypoglycemia, Candida or diabetes may react negatively to xylitol.

Something to watch for: Kelly Goyen, Founder/CEO of Empirical Labs (the lab that makes my vitamin line) has observed children with ADD/ADHD react in the same fashion to Xylitol as to aspartame or high doses of refined sugar. "Xylitol passes through the blood-brain barrier," Goyen states, "and we have observed at our laboratory that after using Xylitol, hypersensitive children become more 'active' shortly after use."

What's my recommendation? Don't use any additional sugars at all. Learn to be satisfied with the natural sweetness of whole foods, and teach your children to be satisfied with natural sweetness, too. This is healthier and less expensive in the long run. Think of all the money you'll save not buying sugar or the sugar replacements!

Posted January 2008 | Permanent Link

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