Are Sugar Alcohols Really a “Sugar-Free” Substitute?

”Bowl of Sugar"
Sugar adds calories and has bad oral effects. Photo by sierpniowka –

Sugar alcohols are a type of organic compounds extensively used in the making of sugar-free products. The first thing which should be understood  is that the use of sugar alcohols as an ingredient is not entirely free of sugar.

Secondly, don’t get confused with the word ‘alcohol’ because there isn’t any in the conventional sense. It represents the organic group of the carbohydrates of these sugars. You won’t get drunk with the consumption of sugar alcohols.  

Like traditional processed sweetener options, sugar alcohol also comes from plants, fruits and berries. However, their carbohydrate structures are slightly different from table sugar (sucrose). In this article, we will discuss in detail about the reality of sugar alcohol, its benefit, downsides and difference from table sugar.

Difference Between Sugar Alcohol and Table Sugar

Calorie Count
There is a significant difference between the caloric values of both types of sugars. One gram of table sugar contains around four calories. On the other hand, different types of sugar alcohols can contain one to three calories in the same weight.  

Difference of Taste
Most of the sugar alcohols have an understated ‘sweet’ taste. This is another reason they are used in sugar-free food products because their addition doesn’t tilt the taste of the food towards extreme sweetness. However, there is a variant of sugar alcohol with the name xylitol which has nearly the same taste of sweetness as table sugar.

Rate of Absorption
Sugar alcohols are absorbed slower than the conventional table sugar in the blood circulation.

Types of Sugar Alcohols
There are more than half a dozen sugar alcohol variants available in the market. Let’s have a quick look on some of the most commonly used types of this sugar alternative.

Mannitol is naturally found in different plants and berries. It can be extracted from mushrooms, strawberries and even from the onion. It’s nearly half as sweet as the table sugar.

It is one of the most commonly used sugar substitutes available in the market. A mass-scale manufacturing of sorbitol is done by the processing of dextrose which is abundantly present in cornstarch. It also has the same sweetness level as of mannitol.  

Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates

This sugar alcohol is also made of cornstarch and has very low sweetness level as compared to the aforementioned types above.


Xylitol chemical makeup diagram
Xylitol chemical makeup

Unlike most of the sugar alcohols, xylitol is made of the leftover organic material. For instance, used sugar cane stalks and corn cobs are used to manufacture this sugar alcohol. In sweetness, xylitol is similar to table sugar. Therefore, it is also a popular substitute for people who want to go sugar-free.  

Benefits of Sugar Alcohol

Even though sugar alcohols are not entirely free of the negative effects associated with table sugar, it is still better to use instead of the traditional sweetener. There are two significant benefits of sugar alcohols compared to sucrose (the chief component of sugar).  

Fewer Calories Mean Healthy Diet
Sugar alcohols have fewer calories than traditional table sugar and this attribute alone contain several benefits for human health. According to a research study, around 15 percent of the total calorie consumption of the US population consists of added processed sugar. All these extra calories pave the way for prevalent health complications such as diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases and digestive issues.  

By substituting table sugar with sugar alcohol options, one can significantly cut the number of calories without compromising on the amount and quantity of their meals.

To Maintain Blood Sugar Levels
According to a report, around 90 to 95 percent of diabetic cases in the country are of type 2. This diabetes type is spotted by increased blood sugar levels. Use of the sugar alcohol can help the type 2 diabetic patients to maintain their blood glucose at healthy levels. Sugar alcohol gets absorbed into the blood at a very slow rate as compared to traditional sugar. This means that sugar alcohol can pass through the body without significantly disturbing the glucose levels of it. A small amount of glucose present in sugar alcohols can easily be absorbed by the insulin present in the blood circulation of diabetic patients. By gradually replacing normal sugar with these options, people suffering from type 2 diabetes can also enjoy the desserts and other sweet dishes.

Note: Diabetic patients should consult with their medical professional before changing any dietary regimen.

Better Dental Health

We all know how processed sugar plays its part in deteriorating oral and dental health. Sucrose sugar is responsible for the exponential production of oral bacteria. These bacteria secrete acids detrimental to the protective layer of teeth called enamel.  Eroded enamel causes tooth decay which can lead to further oral health complications.

On the other hand, sugar alcohols are not known to have the same reactions in the oral cavity. It means using them instead of table sugar can help in preventing tooth decay and teeth loss which is a major periodontal concern in the country.

Apart from these major health benefits, miscellaneous studies suggest sugar alcohols might help the healthy probiotic bacteria to grow in the GI tract. These friendly bacteria are known to improve the digestive functions of the gut. Xylitol is also studied in clinical trials for its benefits to the skin and bones.

One Side Effect: Digestive Issues

With all its benefits, sugar alcohols have one side effect. Taken regularly, it can lead to lead to diarrhea and bloating. Since most of the sugar alcohol is not absorbed by the blood, a large amount of it ends up in the large intestine. This overload on the gut can result in digestive issues.  

People who are already suffering from irritable bowel syndrome can experience their symptoms getting worse with the use of sugar alcohols.

It is quite apparent that sugar alcohols have more benefits than harm and it can become part of a healthy diet. Nevertheless, consult your physician before adding sugar alcohol to your dietary plan.

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