You might love sugar—yes, it’s tasty and sweet—but let’s be honest, it's not the best for you. Sure, a slice of cake every so often is totally fine, and natural sugar in the form of fresh fruit can be healthy and satisfying, but in general, so many baked goods, processed foods, condiments, beverages, and more, have high sugar contents that can really add up.
And if you’re on a low-carb, low-sugar diet or are diabetic, you’ll need to watch sugar intake even more. That’s why it’s a good idea to consider different sweetener methods that can keep daily intake low and blood sugar levels balanced to avoid spikes. (And that subsequent crash later—yuck!)
But you want to make sure you’re knowledgeable on what those options are and how they rank against one another. For instance, sugar alcohols are often a great alternative or supplement to sugar, but they’re not created equal.
First off, what are sugar alcohols?
Sugar alcohols aren't actually sugar or alcohol. They are a hybrid substance that retains some aspects of sugar, such as the sweetness, but also have a hydroxyl (an "-OH" or alcohol) molecule attached to it. Any compound with the right type of configuration and an "OH" (that's oxygen and hydrogen) tacked onto it is an alcohol, per chemistry classification, but it’s not the same as alcohol we drink in a cocktail. Examples include mannitol, sorbitol, erythritol, glycerin, malitol, and xylitol.
“Commercially manufactured sugar alcohols were created to provide a way to sweeten foods without having the calories of regular, simple sugar and to minimize the insulin reaction in the person eating the food,” explains Suzanne Dixon, registered dietitian with The Mesothelioma Center in Orlando, Florida. This is one of the main differences between sugar alcohols and regular sugar: the number of calories per gram.
Sugar alcohols are found naturally in small amounts in some fruits and vegetables, such as watermelon, pineapple, kiwifruit, asparagus, and sweet potatoes. They are also manufactured as sweeteners, which are then used in snack foods, sweets, flavored drinks, and more.
And some are better than others!
The main reason some sugar alcohols are better than others is tolerance—where some people react poorly to certain ones over others. “How well someone tolerates, or is able to eat these substances without negative side effects, has a lot to do with why some sugar alcohols are a better choice than others. Some sugar alcohols cause a lot of GI distress—bloating, cramping, gas and diarrhea—and clearly, those are less desirable as sweeteners compared to sugar alcohols that don't cause these issues,” says Dixon.
One other reason is the number of calories per gram. Among the sugar alcohols, they range in calories per gram from about 1 to 3 calories per gram, she says. So, even though sugar alcohols still provide fewer calories per gram than regular sugar, if you're trying to create a low-calorie food, obviously, having a sweetener that provides 1 calorie per gram is preferable.
Plus, the benefits are HUGE
Sugar alcohols have about half the calories of regular sugar! Regular sugar has four calories per gram and sugar alcohols have about two calories per gram, on average, says Dixon.
“In our diet- and weight-conscious culture, fewer calories is an advantage. For many, it falls into the ‘better than sugar’ argument for why people eat foods with added sugar alcohols. And if you don't have a lot of GI symptoms when you eat these foods, there isn't any particular health reason you should avoid them,” she says.
The second potential advantage of sugar alcohols is that, with the exception of a few (like maltitol), they do not elicit nearly the same insulin response as eating regular, simple sugar. So, they make dessert foods for people with diabetes way easier. You might see these dessert items in the form of ice cream, cookies, or baked goods. Same goes for snacks, like protein bars.
Plus, sugar alcohols have great "oral health" benefits, which is why most chewing gums contain them. “Oral products with xylitol are even ‘endorsed’ by the American Dental Association,” says Dixon.
So which should you go with?
The FDA has a requirement that foods containing sorbitol and mannitol have a warning label, as these two sugar alcohols are the most likely to cause GI distress. “Per FDA guidelines, the label must indicate the presence of these substances and state that excess consumption may have laxative effects,” says Dixon.
Because of this, you’re way better nixing these two and choosing erythritol. “One clear benefit of erythritol over the sorbitol, glycerin, and malitol is calories per gram. Of all the sugar alcohols, erythritol is the lowest at less than 1 kcal/gram. It's actually closer to zero and technically has 0.2 kcal/gram,” says Dixon.
Erythritol goes through a natural fermentation process, unlike maltitol, which is made by hydrogenating maltose (found in starches like corn). Next to being non-caloric, erythritol is also noncarcinogenic and is even an antioxidant, possibly helping reduce the risk of heart disease! Plus, because it is absorbed differently by the body, erythritol is very easy on your stomach, unlike some other sugar alcohols...AND erythritol doesn't spike blood sugar or insulin levels!
Malitol, on the other hand, can really spike your blood sugar, causing hunger and cravings, and that GI distress possibility is still there, so you’re better off avoiding this one, too! While erythritol is close to zero kcal per gram (0.2 kcal/gram), maltitol has 2.1 kcal/gram.
And you could also benefit from adding in glycerin, as glycerin helps make food moist and soft. No one likes a hard brownie, right? Glycerin will offer great texture and mouthfeel.
Vegetable glycerin is also a product with numerous potential health benefits—one of which is that glycerin may boost hydration, which can improve your skin and athletic performance.
FitJoy’s bars contain glycerin and/or erythritol for a smooth texture and healthy touch of low-calorie, low-carb sweetness. The glycerin that FitJoy uses in its products is a sugar alcohol derived from plants oils. It has a mild taste and low glycemic index that make it an amazing sweetener.
The takeaway? Don’t fear sugar alcohols—embrace them! Just choose them wisely and always read labels to be sure you’re picking a safe product.
Isadora Baum is a freelance writer, certified health coach, and author of 5-Minute Energy. She can't resist a good sample, a margarita, a new HIIT class, or an easy laugh. She writes for various magazines, such as Men's Health, Women's Health, SELF, LIVESTRONG, POPSUGAR, Allure, Health, Cooking Light, and more. Learn more about her on her website: isadorabaum.com.