Medical News Today: What are sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols are used as a substitute for sugar in certain foods, particularly those that are labeled “sugar-free” or “no added sugar.” Aside from adding sweetness, sugar alcohols can also impact the size, texture, taste, browning, and moisture content of foods they are used in. They are also known as polyols.

Read on to learn more about the types, potential benefits, and risks of sugar alcohols.

Types and sources

A sugar alcohol, sorbitol in a bowl
Sorbitol is typically manufactured from dextrose, and is naturally found in apples and pears.

A variety of sugar alcohol types exist in nature. Sugar alcohols can also be manufactured for use in food and pharmaceutical products.

Below is a list of commonly used sugar alcohols, their sources, and their sweetness in comparison to regular sugar.


Sorbitol is found naturally in some fruits. When used to make food products, it is typically manufactured from dextrose that is derived from cornstarch.

Sorbitol tastes approximately 60 percent as sweet as regular sugar.


Mannitol is naturally found in a variety of plants, including strawberries, mushrooms, and onions. It can be made using fructose from cornstarch.

Mannitol is also approximately 60 percent as sweet as regular sugar.


Maltitol is made using maltose from cornstarch.

It tastes around 75 percent as sweet as regular sugar.

Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates

Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates are made from starch, with cornstarch being used most often.

Their sweetness depends on their makeup, but the range is about 20 to 50 percent that of regular sugar.


Erythritol is also produced from cornstarch, but it is unique because the manufacturing process involves fermentation.

It tastes about 70 percent as sweet as regular sugar.


Xylitol can be made from a few different materials, including birch wood, corncobs, and leftover sugar cane stalks.

It is just about as sweet as regular sugar, and also has a cooling, minty taste.


Isomalt is made from sugar but only tastes around 55 percent as sweet.


Lactitol is made from whey and tastes about 35 percent as sweet as regular sugar.

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Possible health benefits

the sugar alcohol, xylitol, in a glass bowl
Sugar alcohols, such as xylitol, may provide fewer calories than sugar.

In a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that added sugar provided around 14.1 percent of calories consumed by children and adults in the United States from 2003 to 2010.

There are possible connections between the consumption of added sugar and certain health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. As a result, many people are searching for ways to decrease the amount of added sugar they consume. Choosing foods sweetened with sugar alcohols may help.

Sugar alcohols also provide fewer calories than sugar, so they may be beneficial for people trying to lose weight by reducing their calorie intake.

Another possible benefit of sugar alcohols is related to how the body processes them. They are not fully absorbed and digested by the body, so they result in less of an increase in blood sugar. Foods sweetened with sugar alcohols may allow people with diabetes to maintain better blood sugar control while still enjoying sweet treats in moderation.

Sugar alcohols also offer potential benefits for oral health. Bacteria that live in the mouth do not feed on sugar alcohols, so they do not cause tooth decay like regular sugar.

Possible health risks and considerations

Consuming large amounts of sugar alcohols could result in gas, diarrhea, or other digestive issues. As mentioned above, sugar alcohols are not fully absorbed by the body.

For people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), sugar alcohols are one type of short-chain carbohydrate that may provoke symptoms.

Polyols — another name for sugar alcohols — are included in the FODMAPs acronym, which stands for fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols. A low-FODMAP diet may help control gastrointestinal symptoms in some people with IBS.

Foods labeled “sugar-free” or “no added sugar” can be confusing to some consumers, who may believe that these foods will not impact their blood sugar. Many foods labeled “sugar-free” or “no added sugar” still provide calories, fat, and carbohydrates.

All consumers should read food labels so that they are aware of the nutritional information.

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Nutritional information

Sucrose or other sugars contain about 4 calories per gram (g). The table below outlines the number of calories in sugar alcohols, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation.

Sugar alcohols can be found in a variety of products, including some of the following:

  • baked goods
  • candies
  • chewable vitamins
  • chocolates
  • cough drops
  • cough syrups
  • drinks
  • frostings
  • gums
  • ice cream
  • jellies
  • mouthwashes
  • puddings
  • toothpastes

How do they differ from regular sugar?

Sugar alcohols differ from regular sugar in many ways. They are not fully absorbed and digested in the body, so they have less of an impact on blood sugar.

The hormone insulin is only needed in small amounts or not at all to metabolize sugar alcohols. They also provide fewer calories per gram than regular sugar.

Additionally, differences in chemical structure exist between sugar alcohols and regular sugar.

Another difference between sugar alcohols and regular sugar is taste. Many sugar alcohols, except for maltitol and xylitol, taste considerably less sweet than regular sugar. Some also have a minty or cool taste in the mouth.

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In summary, sugar alcohols have many diverse uses in the food and pharmaceutical industries. They can affect multiple aspects of products. They provide fewer calories per gram than regular sugar but still deliver a sweet taste.

They may be beneficial for weight management, blood sugar control, and oral health.

Consuming sugar alcohols in excess can result in gastrointestinal discomfort, so it is important that people read labels and be mindful of the amount of sugar they consume.

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