What Do Sugar Alcohols Mean in Carb Counting?

Carb counting is a type of diet usually used by people who have diabetes to help control blood glucose (sugar). The goal of carb counting is to eat a limited amount of carbohydrates at each meal because carbohydrates are broken down into glucose in the blood. Carbohydrates come from grains, starches and sugar. Sometimes sugar alcohols are used as a sugar substitute to lower the amount of carbohydrates in a food.

An assortment of gourmet candy on display at a store. Credit: Gargolas/iStock/Getty Images

About Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols are a type of low-calorie sweetener used in sugar-free candy, sugar-free baked goods, sugar-free gums and sugar-free desserts. They are called isomalt, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, erythritol and xylitol. They have about 1.5 to 3 calories per gram of sugar alcohol, and do not contain any alcohol. They are recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as being generally safe for use.

Benefits of Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols are important because they have fewer carbohydrates than regular sugar, and for people with diabetes, this can help with blood sugar control. Sugar alcohols also have fewer calories and can be helpful for people who are trying to lose weight. Sugar alcohols provide sweetness to foods without adding as many calories as regular sugar.


Sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed by the body during digestion, which means the body does not get as many calories or carbohydrates from these. Because sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed, they can sometimes cause stomach upset. Having more than 50 g a day of sorbitol or 20 g of mannitol a day can cause diarrhea.

Counting Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols are counted in the total carbohydrate number in the Nutrition Facts panel. Because sugar alcohols have fewer carbohydrates, half the amount of sugar alcohol content can be subtracted from the total carbohydrate amount, but only if the product has more than 5 g of sugar alcohol. For example, an item that has 25 g total carbohydrate and 8 g sugar alcohol would be estimated to only have 21 g of total carbohydrate.

Sugar-Free Foods

Foods that use sugar alcohols instead of sugars are usually labeled sugar free. Although foods are labeled sugar free, they usually still contain carbohydrates that can come from various grains and starches. It is important to still count the carbohydrates in sugar-free foods because they still can raise blood sugar.

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