Satisfying Your Sweet Tooth With Low-Calorie Sweeteners: Part 2

Last week, I reviewed low-calorie sweeteners that have few, if any, calories and that have no effect on blood glucose levels. This week, I’ll take a look at another group of sweeteners called polyols, or sugar alcohols.

Sugar alcohols are types of carbohydrates that have fewer calories than sugars or starches. Sugar alcohols have a different chemical structure than sugar, and despite the name, they don’t contain alcohol. Our bodies don’t completely digest and absorb these sweeteners, so they contribute fewer calories than sugar. Most sugar alcohols contain anywhere from 1.5 to 3 calories a gram; sucrose and other sugars contain 4 calories a gram.

You might be surprised to learn that sugar alcohols are not “artificial,” as sucralose and aspartame, for example, are. Sugar alcohols are actually found in many fruits and vegetables, but for commercial use, are usually made from glucose, sucrose, or starch.

Sugar alcohols are found in foods that are typically called “sugar-free” or “no sugar added,” including sugar-free ice cream, frozen desserts, baked goods, candy, and chewing gum. Many mouthwashes, toothpastes, cough syrups, and throat lozenges contain sugar alcohols, too. These sweeteners are often used along with other low-calorie sweeteners, such as aspartame, acesulfame-K, sucralose, and saccharin. Sugar alcohols not only add sweetness, they add texture and bulk, too—attributes that other low-calorie sweeteners can’t add.

Here are some of the most common sugar alcohols used in food products:

Erythritol is now available commercially for use as a tabletop sweetener. It’s marketed under the brand “Zsweet,” and according to the manufacturer, it contains no calories and has no effect on blood glucose levels (check out[1] for more information).

You might be wondering if sugar alcohols have any benefits over other sweeteners. Apart from providing bulk and texture to foods, sugar alcohols offer the following benefits:

Sugar alcohols are considered safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, they can cause a few side effects that can be unpleasant, if not downright uncomfortable. Keeping in mind that sugar alcohols are only partially digested and absorbed, depending on how much you consume, you may experience gassiness, bloating, and even diarrhea if you scarf down too many sugar-free candies or chocolates. In other words, sugar alcohols can double as a laxative. Of course, some people are more “sensitive” than others, so side effects can vary from person to person.

Another note of caution: as I mentioned last week, sugar-free does not mean carbohydrate-free. This motto applies to foods sweetened with sugar alcohols as well as foods that contain other low-calorie sweeteners. Eating too much of any food containing sugar alcohols can lead to high blood glucose levels. Remember to always look at serving size and total carbohydrate on the Nutrition Facts label for anything you eat, despite what the claim is on the front of the packaging. For those of you who are carb counting and adjusting your insulin to cover carbohydrate, a good rule of thumb is that if a food contains more than 10 grams of sugar alcohol per serving, subtract half the grams of sugar alcohols from the total carbohydrate grams.

Foods sweetened with sugar alcohols aren’t always lower in carbohydrate than the “regular” version. For example, let’s compare two versions of a Klondike Bar:

Original Klondike Bar
250 calories
17 g fat
22 g carbohydrate

No Sugar Added Klondike Bar
170 calories
9 g fat
21 g carbohydrate

Granted, the original version is higher in calories and fat, but compare the carbohydrate in both bars—it’s practically the same. And because the No Sugar Added version has 6 grams of sugar alcohols, even if you subtract half (3 grams) from the total carbohydrate, there still wouldn’t be much of a difference in total carbohydrate. So, whether you choose the Original or the No Sugar Added Klondike bar, the effect on your blood glucose level is going to be pretty much the same. The choice is yours.

For more information on sweeteners in general, go to the Calorie Control Council’s Web site at[2].


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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

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