As a sweetener, sugar alcohols are best of a bad lot
Daniel Davey - performance nutritionist BSc MSc, CSCS, NEHS @Foodflicker and @Fit_Mag
With a greater awareness of the negative effects of foods with "added" sugars, there has been a growing demand for "sugar-free" foods, but our predilection for sweet-tasting options remain.
Many of these foods are highly processed and should be avoided; yet they are proving hugely popular so companies continue to search for the most suitable sweeteners to use.
Low carbohydrate and sugar-free foods are bland in terms of sweetness and so are usually sweetened with what are labelled 'natural' or 'artificial' sweeteners. Most have received lots of bad press over their suggested health risks or side-effects.
One alternative is sugar alcohols. They have gained relatively less negative publicity and are widely used in many foods. Sugar alcohols can also be found in natural foods, like pears and apples, but are most often seen in sugar-free processed foods. The most common forms of sugar alcohols are sorbitol, isomalt, xylitol, mannitol, lactitol, and maltitol.
What are sugar alcohols?
Sugar alcohols are a modified form of carbohydrate that are most commonly used to sweeten foods like puddings, chewing gum, low carbohydrate snacks and protein bars.
In general they contribute less calories per gram and elicit lower blood glucose and insulin response compared to regular sugar.
The biggest difference is that sugar alcohols do contain a small bit of carbohydrate and calories – roughly 1 to 3 calories per gram – compared to artificial sweeteners, which don't contain any. Because these sugar alcohols are not being digested efficiently, they arrive to the intestine where they are broken down to provide a small amount of energy to the body. Some research suggests that sugar alcohols can actually have a positive effect on gut health by increasing the level of "good" bacteria. But others say they can cause diarrhoea, flatulence and stomach distress.
Should you eat foods containing sugar alcohol?
The American Diabetes Association suggests that sugar alcohols are acceptable to use in moderation, but you shouldn't forget that these are ultimately man-made processed foods. Therefore, foods containing sugar alcohols rather than refined sugar may be marginally better for your health, but that doesn't make them intrinsically healthy.
If you want to eat something sweet and your desires don't extend to a piece of fresh fruit, it is still better to have a piece of dark chocolate or some nuts blended with dried fruit as a treat.
For most people, eating foods containing sugar alcohols from time to time may not be all that bad for your health, but that doesn't mean they should be making frequent appearances in your foods.
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