What Are Sugar Alcohols?
Sugar alcohols, also known as polyols (referring to their chemical structures), are hydrogenated mono-, di-, and polysaccharides.1 They are commonly used as natural alternative sweeteners and bulking agents.2,3 Unlike artificial sweeteners (eg, aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin), sugar alcohols provide some caloric value and are naturally present in some fruits and vegetables in small amounts.1,2 They are also commercially produced in large quantities and are increasingly used in foods and drinks.
Here are the types of sugar alcohols internationally approved for use in food products:4
What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Sugar Alcohols?
Sugar alcohols are only partially absorbed and metabolized by the body, providing on average approximately half as much calories (2 kcals/g) as nutritive sweeteners (ie, glucose and sucrose).1,2 Their metabolism is insulin-independent and is suggested to have minimal effects on blood glucose levels.1,2,5 Various studies have shown that sugar alcohols do result in some insulinemic and glycemic responses, but that these responses were much less than when glucose or sucrose was consumed.6–8 Current research seems to suggest that sugar alcohols may be preferable to nutritive and artificial sweeteners as they may have more favorable effects on glucose metabolism, lipids, and pro-inflammatory pathways.1
However, sugar alcohols may cause undesired gastrointestinal discomfort.2 Because they are only partially absorbed by the small intestine, the unabsorbed sugar alcohols reach the colon and are fermented by colonic bacteria to produce hydrogen and methane. This can cause abdominal bloating and cramping, flatulence, and diarrhea. Additionally, even though rigorous studies have found that sugar alcohols have no health risks,4 more research is needed to determine their long-term health effects.1,3
For individuals with diabetes, it must be noted that sugar alcohols do result in some glycemic and insulinemic responses, and thus must be consumed in moderation.1,2 When consuming products with large quantities of sugar alcohols, use caution and discuss with your health care provider when appropriate.
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