Cutting back on sugar doesn't have to mean going without sweets. A new brand of naturally-sourced sweeteners is popping up in foods that can soothe your sweet tooth without causing surges to your blood sugar. These misleadingly named "sugar alcohols" are relatively safe for everyone, including diabetics; however, they are not risk-free. If you have diabetes, you need to monitor your sugar alcohol intake, and consume them in moderation.
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Despite their name, sugar alcohols contain neither sucrose nor ethanol, which are commonly referred to as sugar and alcohol. Sugar alcohols occur naturally in foods such as fruits and berries, and are often added to processed foods as sugar substitutes.
Sugar alcohols add sweetness, bulk and texture to foods. They also help food stay moist and add a cooling sensation. They're found in a wide variety of products, from chewing gum to candy, baked desserts, energy bars and chocolate.
Sugar Alcohols Vs. Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners such as saccharin, or Sweet N Low, and aspartame, or NutraSweet, which are often used as tabletop sugar substitutes, have zero calories and no carbohydrates. Sugar alcohols, on the other hand, contain about 2.6 calories per gram and a small amount of carbs. Both are considered generally safe for use by diabetics, but the American Diabetes Association says sugar alcohols should not be eaten in excess. Even for people without diabetes, sugar alcohols can cause bloating, gas and a laxative effect that might cause loose stools and diarrhea. The FDA regulates both artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols, and has approved several as safe for consumption.
If you are watching your carb intake as part of your diabetes management regimen, it's important to understand sugar alcohols' effects on your blood glucose. Unfortunately, their effects can vary widely, but overall, it's much less severe than the effect of either sugar or starch. You can calculate your sugar alcohol intake with a simple formula. If your food contains more than 5 grams of sugar alcohols, subtract half the grams of sugar alcohol from the amount of total carbs and count the remaining grams of carbs in your meal plan.
Identifying Sugar Alcohols
You might be eating sugar alcohols without knowing it. In some cases, your food will list sugar alcohol as an ingredient. Alternatively, you might see a listing for erythritol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol or xylitol. Highly refined stevia sweetener preparations such as Pure Via and Truvia are also sugar alcohols.
You're most likely to find these additives in foods labeled as "sugar-free," but they might also show up in reduced-calorie foods. Read labels carefully to be sure.
The sugar alcohol xylitol is frequently used in dental products such as toothpaste and mouthwash due to its proven effectiveness at improving dental health. A 2011 study published in the journal "Medical Principles and Practice" found that substituting regular sugars with sugar alcohols was an effective tool for reducing tooth decay. In addition, xylitol can reduce the growth of plaque, fight cavity-causing bacteria and potentially help teeth remineralize after decay. Toothpaste and mouthwash are safe for people with diabetes, and you do not need to calculate your sugar alcohol intake as long as you do not swallow the product.