What are sugar alcohols and are they harmful for our health?

If you’re ever looked at a nutrition label, you’ve probably noticed the word “sugar alcohol” on the label. There’s quite a bit of research that’s come out about sugar alcohols, the effect on our health, and how to spot them on a label. So today, we’re going to discuss what sugar alcohols are and whether we should be worried about them or not for our health.

What are sugar alcohols? 

Sugar alcohol is the common name given to a substance known as polyol. They occur naturally in foods or can be used as sweeteners or bulking agents. Sugar alcohols come from plant-based products such as fruit. As a sweetener, sugar alcohols provide fewer calories than refined sugar, making them easy to market as “low calorie” foods. Sugar alcohols are lower in calories because they are converted to glucose, a form of energy, more slowly than refined sugar. They also require no insulin to be metabolized and therefore doesn’t affect our blood sugar levels. Because of all of these factors, sugar alcohols have become a commonly used sweetener in many everyday food products.

Sugar alcohols are vastly different than the alcohol we drink. Their names are similar because they resemble the same chemical structure.


How to identify them 

Some of the most common names of sugar alcohols include: mannitol, sorbitol, lactitol, xylitol, isomalt, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates. These are not typically added in at-home cooking, rather, they are used in processed foods. Foods that are labeled as “sugar-free” oftentimes consist of sugar alcohols. These include cookies, cakes, chewing gums, or candy. Even things like toothpaste or mouthwash can also contain sugar alcohols.

If a food is labeled as “sugar-free” or “no added sugar,” the product must list the sugar alcohol either under the total carbohydrate category on the nutrition label, or under the nutrition ingredient list. 

Harmful or beneficial?

While sugar alcohols contain less calories than refined sugar, there are many side effects of sugar alcohol consumption. The most common side effect is bloating and diarrhea when sugar alcohols are eaten in significant quantities. There’s also significant evidence that sugar alcohols can cause a “laxative effect.” A laxative effect is when you need to run to the bathroom. Weight gain is another potential side effect. Lastly, if eaten in excess, those with type 2 diabetes might see a rise in blood sugar.

Unlike refined sugar, sugar alcohols don’t cause tooth decay. Like any food or nutrient, it’s important to understand the benefits and downsides to consumption. It’s ultimately up to you to make the decision for yourself. If you choose to consume sugar alcohols, we recommend doing so in moderation.

Difference between sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners

Some individuals get confused between sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners. Artificial sweeteners have 0 calories, while sugar alcohols do. Artificial sweeteners also contain 0 carbs, while sugar alcohols do. Therefore, sugar alcohols can potentially raise your blood sugar slightly; although if your remember, not as much as refined sugar! 

So, what’s the verdict?

Given the negatives, we do not recommend consuming excess sugar alcohols. This is true of most foods – eat a varied, balanced diet! Instead, focus on real, whole foods with natural sweetener sources. If sweetening something yourself or if looking for something sweetened, we recommend using honey. Honey is considered a natural sugar source with probiotics in it.

Here at Pure Plates, we believe in using natural foods that honor our health. You can learn more about our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) here.