Sugar alcohols are a unique nutrient. Known scientifically as polyols, these macro nutrient molecules are a compound of alcohol (minus ethanol) and carbohydrates. This makes them a hybrid of two macro Nutrient types. While there are several different types of alcohol sugars available, there are 4 which are commonly used. These are sorbitol, xylitol, erythritol and mannitol.
Xylitol is probably the most popular since it is found in numerous sugar free foods and orally administered substances like mouthwash, chewing gum and toothpaste. It is also the number 1 table sugar substitute and is naturally produced in the human body. Xylitol sweetness is comparable to regular sugar (sucrose) but has 40% fewer calories. This makes it an essential weight loss companion for those with an insatiable sweet tooth. Pet owners beware, xylitol is deadly to dogs! Treating your pet to some tooth friendly sugar free treats is great, so long as sugar alcohol is not the sweetener.
Sorbitol is also commonly used as a sugar alternative in foods, confectionery and oral treatments. It naturally occurs in prunes and is what gives prune juice its laxative qualities. Sorbitol is nearly as sweet as sugar but only has 60% of its caloric value.
Mannitol is an alcohol sugar derived from the carbohydrate sugar maltose. It is commonly used in low carb, sugar free products, especially those aimed at the Paleo, Banting and Keto crowd. This is because it is not only as sweet as sugar, it also has a similar flavour profile. Mannitol also only has half the calories of regular sucrose making it perfect for weight loss.
Erythritol is derived from the fermentation of corn starch glucose. This unique alcohol sugar has a few properties that set it apart from the rest. While very close in sweetness to sucrose, erythritol has a tremendous calorie sparsity of just 5% of the caloric value of table sugar. This makes it ideal not just as a substitute for healthy living, but an all out essential addition to those managing conditions such as type 2 diabetes or obesity. Erythritol has also been shown to possess antioxidant qualities that may help treat cardiovascular damage caused by diabetes.
Now that you know what these unique nutrients are all about, let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of sugar alcohols.
Pros and Cons
Pro: Low Calorie Weight Loss Supplement
Sugar alcohols all have a lower caloric value than regular carbohydrate sugars, this means they contribute to weight gain much less than sugar does. Mannitol, for example, has a caloric value 95% less than sucrose, that’s insane if you ask us!
If you also take into account that sugar alcohols are typically metabolized differently from sugars, especially in regard to insulin sensitivity, you begin to unravel more weight loss benefits. Firstly, sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed by the small intestines to enter your bloodstream. That means less of the substance is metabolized by your body, adding to your calorie count. Secondly, sugar alcohols don’t stimulate insulin release to the same extent as carbs, thus allowing you to preserve a healthy insulin sensitivity all the while satisfying your sweet tooth cravings.
Con: Digestive drama.
Ever read the label on a pack of gum or sugar free mints and wondered why there’s a laxative warning? Well that’s because alcohol sugars are known to loosen the bowels and can lead to diarrhea when consumed in excess.
This is because some sugar alcohols pass through the small intestines without being absorbed into the bloodstream. This leads them to the small intestines and exposes them to the diverse ecosystem of bacteria known as gut flora. Unlike the bacteria in your mouth, some of these can metabolize alcohol sugar which leads to fermentation. This fermentation process leads to gas and bloating, giving you general discomfort. With more significant quantities, the fermentation of sugar alcohol can cause diarrhea, making it somewhat of a laxative.
Sometimes we do need a bit of laxative assistance, people with constipation can attest to that. In such cases, this con actually becomes a pro. As mentioned, prune juice, which is rich in sorbitol, is a popular natural laxative for those suffering from constipation.
Pro: Optimized Oral Health.
When it comes to sugar, the most dire consequences associated with its excess consumption all have to do with metabolic complications that occur once it is digested. Conditions such as diabetes and obesity are amongst the most prevalent modern health problems and can all be linked to excess sugar consumption. But we all remember being taught about the first real danger of sugar to health, the danger of tooth decay.
Sugar has a bad rep when it comes to oral hygiene. The bacteria commonly present in the mouth act fast to metabolize sugars and carbs from the food we eat. This metabolic action results in the release of acids that erode the soft gum tissue and teeth causing cavities, infection and foul breath. So by substituting sugar with nutrients your mouth bacteria can live off, you can greatly reduce the effect they have on tooth and gum health also leading to fresher breath. That’s the reason sugar alcohols are used in oral care products like toothpaste, mouth wash, breath mints and chewing gum.
Con: Deadly to Dogs.
While this one has no implications on your own health, the risk sugar alcohols, namely xylitol pose to your pooch are dire, which ultimately affects you too.
The reason xylitol is so deadly to dogs is based on how it interacts with insulin. When a human eats xylitol, your body recognizes it a non-sugar nutrient in your blood. This causes your pancreas not to be triggered into releasing insulin. Unfortunately, the system in a dog is not so sophisticated. When a dog consumes xylitol, it immediately triggers a release of insulin. That’s because it’s body recognizes the availability of xylitol as one and the same with glucose in the blood. Once this insulin is released, the glucose levels in the blood fall drastically, a condition known as hypoglycemia. This is the opposite of diabetes causing hyperglycemia, but can have equally devastating consequences, made worse because they are often acute.
Xylitol in a dog has a high probability of a lethal outcome and must be avoided.
Sugar alcohols are a great, natural sugar substitute. They offer a similar taste experience at many times less the caloric burden. They also keep you safe from other risks associated with excess sugar such as hyperglycemia, a precursor to type 2 diabetes and obesity. With a few mild digestive side effects and the obvious warning to pet owners, the rewards of alcohol sugars far outweigh the risks.