Pick up a carton of No Sugar Added ice cream or your favorite brand of sugar-free gum and take a gander at the ingredients. You may be surprised to find that they are sweetened or partially sweetened with substances whose names end in -ol, such as manitol, sorbitol or xylitol.
These are sugar alcohols—not as calorie dense as sugar, but not calorie-free like the sugar substitutes Equal® and Sweet and Low®. As with any sweetener on the market, from sugar to substitutes, you can choose to add sugar alcohols into your diet. To make sure that decision is the right one for you and your habits, here is a Sugar Alcohol Fact Sheet.
Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate whose chemical structure resembles a cross between a sugar molecule and an alcohol molecule. Called polyols, they are either derived from plant products like fruits, or are synthesized in a lab.
They won’t get you intoxicated (they’re not that kind of alcohol), and they don’t pack as much of a punch as normal sugars (their power to raise blood glucose is only half that of sugar.)
Sugar alcohols contain two calories per gram compared to plain sugar’s four calories per gram.
On a food label, you can find sugar alcohols listed on both the ingredient panel and on the Nutrition Facts Panel under the sugar line.
If you are counting your carbohydrates as your meal planning method, you can subtract ½ of the sugar alcohol content from the Total Carbohydrate.
Here’s an example:
On this label, you can find the amount of countable carbohydrate by subtracting all of the grams of fiber and half the grams of sugar alcohol from the Total Carbohydrate listed. Here, that would be 9 grams (Total Carbohydrate) – 2 grams (Fiber) – 1.5 grams (1/2 of the sugar alcohol total) = 5.5 grams.
Sugar alcohols aren’t harmful, but consuming too much can sometimes have a rather unpleasant laxative side effect.
To use sugar or one of the substitutes is wholly a personal decision. Most of the foods containing sugar alcohols aren’t the things you’d find included in the daily plate. They are your extras, your treats, your desserts and snacks.
And remember – no matter how your treat is sweetened, make sure to account for the carbs!