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Identifying Sugar Alcohols in Food

Oct 19, 2021
Identifying Sugar Alcohols in Food
Sugar alcohols are a type of alternative carbohydrate that can cause symptoms in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

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Identifying Sugar Alcohols in Food

If you're health-conscious, you are probably an expert at reading product labels. But what about food that contains sugar alcohol as a sweetener? Sugar has become inextricably linked to our nutrition and way of life. The decision to consume sugar on a regular basis is increasingly in your hands.

Sugar alcohols are a type of alternative carbohydrate that can cause symptoms in people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

What is sugar alcohol?

Sugar alcohols are often used as a sugar substitute within many products, especially those branded "sugar-free" or "no sugar added." This ingredient is found in fruits and vegetables, while others are included in reduced-sugar products.

Identifying Sugar Alcohols in Food

How does my body digest sugar alcohols?

Sugars are digested in the intestine and then transferred to the bloodstream, where they are processed or utilized for energy. Sugar alcohols; on the other hand, are poorly digested by your body. This can induce bloating, stomach pain, and diarrhea at higher ingestion levels since they are not fully absorbed by the body and are fermented by bacteria in the colon.

Moderate dosages of 10 to 15 grams of sugar alcohols per day are tolerated. Since sugar alcohols are not intensively absorbed like sugar, they have less impact on your blood sugar levels.

Where are sugar alcohols found?

Products containing sugar alcohols, sorbitol or mannitol, must be labeled with a warning which states "excess consumptions may have a laxative effect." Besides identifying labels, the sugar-free and reduced-sugar products include:

  • Chewing gum

  • Flavored jam and jelly

  • Desserts

  • Sweets

  • Baked goods

Calculating sugar alcohols

Identifying Sugar Alcohols in Food

In this example, the total carbohydrate per saving will be 13 grams - 1/2 the carbohydrate in the sugar alcohol.

One half of the sugar in the sugar alcohol per serving is:

6g CHO ÷ 2 = 3 grams of CHO

Total carbohydrate per serving is:

13 grams - 3 grams for the sugar alcohol = 10 grams

When counting carbs, calculate half of the sugar from the sugar alcohol.

Common ingredients sugar alcohols include:


Sorbitol has a cool taste. This sugar alcohol has 60% of the sweetness of sugar, but just 60% of the calories. It's also a popular component in sugar-free snacks and fruits, such as apples and soft sweets. Although sorbitol has a minor influence on blood sugar and insulin levels, it can induce stomach problems later on.


Erythritol is another sugar alcohol that is thought to have a rich flavor. Since erythritol does not reach your large intestine in considerable proportions, it does not have the same digestive adverse effects as most other sugar alcohols. This sugar alcohol is made by fermenting glucose in cornstarch, and it is 70% sweeter than sugar but only has 5% of the calories.


Maltitol is made from sugar maltose and has a flavor and texture that is quite related to ordinary sugar. This sugar alcohol has 90% of the sweetness of sugar, but only half of the calories. If you have diabetes, be cautious of low-carb foods sweetened with maltitol and keep a close eye on your blood sugar levels. Maltitol can be found in ice cream, chewing gum, and desserts.

Other sugar alcohols

Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH), mannitol, xylitol, and isomalt are some of the other sugar alcohols typically found in sugar-free food.

Check out this video from TED-Ed “How sugar affects the brain”

How does sugar alcohol differ from sugar?

Sugar and sugar alcohols contrast greatly in terms of calories, sugar levels, and digestion.

While sugar causes tooth decay, sugar alcohols like xylitol and erythritol help to prevent it. Sugar alcohol is used in toothpaste and sugar-free gum for this reason. Learn more about added sugar in this blog post.