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Sugar Alcohols

What are sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols are a type of sweetener used in foods labeled "sugar-free." You'll find them in chewing gum, sugar-free candies, cookies, soft drinks, and other foods. Sugar alcohols have about one-half to one-third fewer calories than sugar.

For example, if a food label doesn't list sugar as an ingredient, but it has 20 grams of sugar alcohol, that is equal to the calories in about 10 grams of sugar.

Sugar alcohols occur naturally in plant foods in small amounts, such as berries and fruits. Common names for sugar alcohols are sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol, lactitol, isomalt, maltitol, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH).

What are sugar alcohols used for?

Sugar alcohols are used to sweeten diet foods. They are also used in chewing gums, toothpaste, and mouthwash. People who have diabetes eat foods made with sugar alcohols, because sugar alcohols turn to glucose more slowly and don't cause sudden increases in blood sugar.

Sugar alcohols used in chewing gum do not cause tooth decay.

If foods are "sugar-free," does this mean I can eat all I want?

No. Even though the food is "sugar-free," it still has carbohydrate and calories.

If you have diabetes, read food labels closely to find out the amount of carbohydrate in each serving of food containing sugar alcohol. Sugar alcohols don't cause sudden spikes in blood sugar, but they do have some effect on it. Artificial sweeteners, on the other hand, are calorie-free and have no effect on blood sugar.

Are there risks from eating too much sugar alcohol?

If you eat too much of them, sugar alcohols can cause diarrhea, bloating, and weight gain.

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer John Pope, MD - Pediatrics
Last Revised July 1, 2011

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: July 01, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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