Circumventing reliance on sugar is something akin to a national pastime as many individuals seek unique ways to lessen their daily intake. This sort of dependence sends food marketers into a frenzy resulting in numerous products boasting "sugar free" or "low calorie" on their labels. For decades, thishas generallybeen achieved through the use of artificial sweeteners; however, the safety of these products is finally gaining appropriate public attention. One interesting if somewhat confusing alternative - "sugar alcohol" - is now offered in an ever-increasing number of products. It warrants a closer look.
What Exactly Is Sugar Alcohol?
Truly a misnomer, this sweetener is neither sugar nor alcohol even though it does share the chemical structure of each. Sugar alcohol, also known as polyol, is created by adding hydrogen atoms to sugar. For example, in the case of sorbitol, one of the more widely used sugar alcohols, hydrogen is added to glucose.
Potential Benefits And Risks
Extracted from chemicals in plants such as berries and fruits, its sweetness is achieved using less calories. While this sounds like an excellent outcome, like all deals that sound too good to be true, a price eventually must be paid. In this particular instance, it is the body's inability to absorb the sugar alcohol that results in a lower caloric count. The price is paid by your small intestines. Therefore, when the unabsorbed sugar alcohol passes through your intestinal tract it can result in a laxative effect, causing bloating, diarrhea or abdominal pain.
|Mannitol||Lactitol||Erythritol||Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysis's (HSH)|
|Maltitol||Isomalt||Xylitol||Hydrogenated Glucose Syrups (HGS)|
There are several sugar alcohols being used in products today, each of which should appear on the ingredient list of the specific food or drink. Contained within the list you most commonly will find one of the following, most of which end with the letters "ol":
Not All Sugar Alcohols Are Created Equal
Each sugar alcohol occupies a different place on a scale of tolerable to intolerable. For example, mannitol and sorbitol are known to be the worst offenders when it comes to gastric distress. They should be consumed with caution. At the other end of the spectrum is erythritol which can be absorbed in the small intestine and, therefore, does not cause a laxative effect.
The one sugar alcohol which appears to be the most promising appears to be xylitol. Several studies have demonstrated xylitol can positively affect tooth enamel and bone mineral density. This explains why you frequently see it being used in chewing gum. However, although useful in smaller quantities, overconsumption remains a problem.
On the other end of the scale, sorbitol poses a unique health challenge for diabetics. Our bodies are capable of converting glucose into sorbitol within the body. However, this conversion process is greatly accelerated in diabetics. Because the accumulation of sorbitol has a hard time exiting the body, it causes the cells to swell, thus increasing the risk of nerve, kidney, and blood vessel damage as well as the development of cataracts. For that reason, it would be advisable to avoid sorbitol if you are diabetic.
As always, if your food carries any sort of health claim, you should carefully scrutinize the ingredients contained therein. The bottom line is that even though sugar alcohols may be safer than other artificial sweeteners, you will still want to limit their consumption or avoid them altogether if you are prone to gastric distress.
Sources For This Article Include:
Sugar Alcohol Information: Mark's Daily Apple
Sugar Alcohol Information: Pub Med 1/27/2011