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Sugar Alcohols ─ Polyols

Definition of Sugar Alcohols (Polyols)

Sugar alcohols are low-calorie sweeteners similar to sugars but with additional “alcohol” (OH) groups, so they are also called polyols [poly = multiple; -ol refers to alcohol] [1].

Sugar alcohol polyol example

Picture 1. Structural formula of 2 polyols: sorbitol and xylitol
(compared with glucose)

Sugar alcohols are not true sugars; they are usually less sweet than sugars and are poorly digestible and incompletely absorbed. They provide 2.4 kilocalories per gram (except erythritol, which provides no calories), as opposed to sugars, which provide about 4 kilocalories per gram [2]. Sugar alcohols have nothing with the drinking alcohol (ethanol): they do not make you drunk and are not toxic.

Sugar alcohols, like other carbohydrates, are not essential nutrients, which means you do not need to consume them to be healthy.

Chart 1. Examples of Sugar Alcohols in Foods

SUGAR ALCOHOL E-NUMBER
Erythrytol  E968
Glycerol (Glycerin)  E422; GRAS
Isomalt  E953
Lactitol  E966
Maltitol  E965
Mannitol  E421
Polyglycitol syrup or hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH)  E964
Sorbitol  E420; GRAS
Xylitol  E967; GRAS

Chart 1 Legend: Sugar alcohols with E-numbers are permitted in EU [4]. GRAS = Generally Considered As Safe by the US Food and Dug Administration (FDA) [5].

Some other sugar alcohols used outside of the US and EU: arabitol, dulcitol, galactitol, iditol, ribitol and threitol.

On the Nutrition Facts labels, sugar alcohols may be listed under carbohydrates as “sugar alcohols” or “polyols” or may not be listed at all. On the Ingredient Lists, sugar alcohols may be listed as “polyols” or by their exact names, such as sorbitol or xylitol.

Foods That Contain Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols naturally occur in certain fruits: prunes, sweet cherries, peaches, apples, pears and berries [6,7].

Sugar alcohols as food additives are usually artificially produced from sugars or starch (from corncobs) and can be used as sugar substitutes in “no sugar”, “low calorie” or “diet” foods, such as candies, NAS caramels (NAS = No Added Sugar), jelly beans, chewing gums, ice creams, cookies, chocolates, protein bars, baked goods, fillings, fruit spreads and soft drinks.

Sugar alcohols can be also found in medicinal syrups (one dose of cough syrup may contain > 10 g sugar alcohols), toothpastes and lozenges.

Are sugar alcohols good for you?

Tooth Decay

Unlike sugars, sugar alcohols do not promote tooth decay, since the bacteria in mouth do not readily convert them to acids [8]. Xylitol and, to a lesser extent, sorbitol may even have a protective effect on teeth [8,9,10].

Blood Glucose and Diabetes

Sugar alcohols raise blood glucose levels less than sugars ─ they have low glycemic index (GI <10) [11,12,14].

Are sugar alcohols bad for you? Side Effects

Polyols belong to FODMAPs, that is fermentable oligo-, di- or monosaccharides and polyols, which are poorly digestible but can be broken down (fermented) by normal large intestinal bacteria. In sensitive individuals, they can cause abdominal bloating, excessive gas or diarrhea within several hours of ingestion.

When consumed in large amounts (probably more than 20 grams) by healthy adults or in small amounts (few grams) by children or individuals with fructose malabsorption or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), polyols, except erythritol, may have a laxative effect [3,13].

Safety

All sugars alcohols listed in the Chart 1 above are considered safe as food additives in EU [2]. Currently, only glycerol, mannitol and sorbitol are Generally Considered As Safe (GRAS) by US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) [5].

Similar Nutrients

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Are acesulfame-K, aspartame, splenda and stevia sugar alcohols?

No. They are low-calorie sweeteners but not sugar alcohols.

2. What is sugar alcohol in sugar-free gum and candies?

Chewing gums and candies may contain erythritol, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol or xylitol.

  1. O’Donnel, K., 2012, p. 320, Sweeteners and Sugar Alternatives in Food Technology
  2. Polyols, FAQ  European Association of Polyol Producers
  3. Polyols & gastrointestinal effects  Calorie Control Council
  4. Current EU approved additives and their E Numbers  Food Standards Agency
  5. List of GRAS substances  US Food and Drug Administration
  6. Tabele uber fruchtzucker- / sorbit- und traubenzuckergehalt  Fructose.at
  7. Dietary fructose and gastrointestinal symptoms: a review  Bashar.org.il
  8. Deshpande, A. et al, 2008, The impact of polyol-containing chewing gums on dental caries: a systematic review of original randomized controlled trials and observational studies  PubMed
  9. Mickenautsch, S. et al, 2007, Sugar-free chewing gum and dental caries ─ a systematic review  Repositorio Institutional Universidade de Brasilia
  10. Jadad, A., 2008, Case Study: Polyol Chewing Gums – A Systematic Review of the International Literature  Alliance for Cavity-Free Future
  11. Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to the sugar replacers xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, lactitol, isomalt, erythritol, D-tagatose, isomaltulose, sucralose and polydextrose and maintenance of tooth mineralisation by decreasing tooth demineralisation and reduction of post-prandial glycaemic responses  European Food Safety Authority
  12. Glycemic index of sorbitol  Glycemicindex.com
  13. Outbreak of Diarrhea Linked to Dietetic Candies — New Hampshire  Center for the Disease Control and Prevention
  14. Natah, SS et al, 1997, Metabolic response to lactitol and xylitol in healthy men  The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

2 Responses to "Sugar Alcohols ─ Polyols"

  1. Kim says:

    If you are counting carbohydrates for a low carbohydrate diet how do you count sugar alcohol? At least one major diet brand protein bars claims that sugar alcohols do not count.

    • Jan Modric says:

      Kim, you do not count sugar alcohols as carbohydrates.

      Explanation: Sugar alcohols are chemically carbohydrates, but they are not absorbed in the small intestine, so they travel further into the large intestine, where normal intestinal bacteria change them into short-chain fatty acids, which are absorbed.

      So, sugar alcohols, which are carbohydrates when you ingest them, are converted into fats before they are absorbed, so you do not count them as carbohydrates.

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