What Are Sugar Alcohols?

We are hard wired to love sugar. Our earliest ancestors used sweetness as an indication that a particular food source was safe to eat. The sweeter the food, the more energy it would provide for fuel. Sugar also helped them to store fat for when food was scarce. Today, food is abundant in our lives and we don’t have to walk everywhere or run from wild animals to survive. Where sugar once was important for survival and in limited supply, we now consume too much which is causing our health and waistlines to suffer.


So how can we have the sweetness that we crave and limit its ill effects? By using alternative sweeteners. The first artificial sweetener, saccharin, was discovered by accident in 1879. By 1907, it was used as a sugar substitute in food. It provided all the flavor of sugar without all the calories. Today, we have many to choose from however; they are known to cause “metabolic confusion”, potentially cancer and other illnesses. Check out our article on artificial sweeteners for more information. Recently, sugar alcohols have started taking the place of artificial sweeteners in many of our foods. So what are they and are they the healthier alternative?


First of all, sugar alcohols do not contain ethanol therefore you won’t get a “buzz” from consuming foods that contain them. They look, taste and act like sugar in our brains but contain fewer calories. They are a more “natural” choice since they are derived from the sugar common in fruits and vegetables. Fun fact-they all end in “ol” as you will see and are known as polyols. There are several available but let’s discuss the three most common- Xylitol, Erythritol and Sorbitol.




Xylitol is by far the most common and heavily researched. It has a mint like flavor making it great to use in breathe mints, chewing gum and toothpaste. It helps to combat tooth decay and osteoporosis by increasing bone volume. It also increases collagen production supporting skin and joint health. While it’s as sweet as regular sugar, it contains 40% fewer calories. It does cause digestive upset if consumed in large quantities.




Fermenting glucose found in cornstarch creates Erythritol. It tastes great and most is absorbed into the blood stream and excreted by the kidneys. This process bypasses the gut which results in less GI upset. It is 70% as sweet as sugar with only 5% of the calories.




Sorbitol is commonly used in sugar free food, drinks and candy. It is 55% as sweet as sugar and contains 60% of the calories.  It has very little effect on blood sugar and insulin but is known to cause significant GI distress if eaten in large amounts. So if you are drinking sugar free colas, sugar free candy or cookies, there might be a good reason why your stomach is upset.


So which are better to help combat our sweet tooth, artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols? Neither would be from first choice but that is difficult for the average person. With that said, sugar alcohols appear to be better. They do not create the “metabolic confusion” associated with artificial sweeteners resulting in potential weight gain. Erythritol has the lowest possibility of GI distress, has a better taste and is low in calories making it my pick of the three mentioned. The next time food is hyped as sugar free or low calorie, check the label for which sugar substitute is being used. Avoiding artificial sweeteners should be high on your priority list. Knowing which sugar alcohol is used is important for discovering your tolerance level. Those with gut issues already, sugar alcohols would not be in your best interest. The best thing you can do is stay away from processed food and become mindful of the amount of sugar or it’s substitute you are consuming on a daily basis.

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Treves Janszen

Treves Janszen

Nutrition Coach at Thrive Fitness
Treves is a Level 1 Certified Nutrition Coach through Precision Nutrition. She has been involved with fitness & nutrition for almost 10 years. Along with being a Nutrition Coach, Treves has 30+ years of healthcare experience as a Registered Nurse. In her spare time, Treves like to read, cook and lay by the pool (when it's sunny, of course!).
Treves Janszen