Sugar is one of the oldest commodities known to man and has at times been so valued that it was kept under lock and key in a sugar safe. The domestication of sugar cane occurred around 8,000BC in New Guinea. Nautical trade routes were responsible for the expansion of sugar throughout Southeast Asia, China, and India. Eventually, sugarcane cultivation made its way to Europe and westward to the New World. Today, sugar production exceeds 190 million metric tons each year!1
When it comes to sugar and other sweeteners, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Consumption of sugar, particularly in excess, is linked to development of a number of chronic degenerative health conditions such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, liver disease, and cancer.2 The American Heart Association recommends no more than 150 calories (about 9 teaspoons or 36 grams) of added sugar per day for men and no more than 100 calories (about 6 teaspoons or 24 grams) for women.3 As such, people have sought out alternatives to sweeten foods and beverages in an attempt to thwart the negative health impacts of excessive sugar.
The food market is home to a number of different sweetener options, each with different properties, strengths, and weaknesses. Most people are familiar with the artificial sweeteners that can be found in the little blue, pink, and yellow packets that adorn the tables of restaurants. Other popular sugar alternatives include honey, agave, and sugar alcohols among others.
Sugar alcohols can be quite confusing form a nutritional standpoint so first things first, although the term”alcohol” is in the name, sugar alcohols are chemically different from (through structurally similar to) alcoholic beverages. More importantly, they do not contain any ethanol. Sugar alcohols occur naturally in foods and come from plant products such as fruits and berries. They are also industrially produced form sugars. Sugar alcohols are sold as white, water-soluble granular solids and look similar to white table sugar. They are used widely in the commercial food industry as bulking agents, thickeners, and sweeteners in place of sugar. Additionally, you can also find them combined with other high-intensity sweeteners to moderate the sweetness level.
Types of Sugar Alcohols
Most people eat sugar alcohols every day and don’t even know it. Some of the most commonly used sugar alcohols include:4
Mannitol which is found in fruits and vegetables like pineapples, olives, asparagus, carrots, sweet potatoes and even seaweed! Mannitol is less sweet than sugar by about 50-70% meaning that more must be used to provide the same level of sweetness.
Sorbitol is also found naturally in fruits and vegetables such as apples, pears, dried fruits (like raisins, figs, and dates) as well as stone fruits like peaches, nectarines, plums, and cherries. Commercially, it is manufactured from corn syrup. Sorbitol is about half as sweet as table sugar meaning twice as much must be used to exact the same level of sweetness. It is often found in sugar-free gums and candies.
Xylitol is also called “wood sugar” because it was first extracted from wood. It is also found in corn cobs, cereals, mushrooms, fruits and vegetables. Xylitol has about the same relative sweetness as sugar and is often found in chewing gum and toothpaste.
Erythritol was originally discovered by a Scottish chemist in 1848. It is naturally found in fruits like watermelon and pears as well as fermented products like wine, cheese, and soy sauce. Erythritol is 60-70% as sweet as white sugar and is labeled as “non-caloric” (even though it does contain about .2 calories per gram) in some countries like the US and Japan.
Nutritional & Health Considerations of Sugar Alcohols
As a sugar substitute, sugar alcohols provide fewer calories (about a half to one-third less calories in most cases) than regular sugar.4 Additionally, they convert to glucose more slowly, have little to no insulin requirements, and are not known to cause spikes in blood sugar. Sugar alcohols have other health benefits as well. Regular use of xylitol for example results in around a 75% reduction in the number of streptococcus mutant bacteria (the main bacteria associated with the development of dental cavities) in the mouth.5 It may also be helpful in both the prevention and treatment of Type II Diabetes as well as reducing fat accumulation in the abdominal area.6 Erythritol has been shown to have potent antioxidant capacity and to have a favorable impact on the vasculature.7 Due to the fact that they are not well absorbed in the digestive tract, sugar alcohols have a tendency to cause gastric distress (nausea, rumbling, diarrhea, reflux, etc.), particularly when consumed in large quantities. Some sugar alcohols have a greater tendency to cause these effects over others.
Andrea Pryce, N.D., received her baccalaureate degree from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and is a 2006 graduate of Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine in Tempe, Arizona. Following completion of her N.D. degree she went into private practice in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has a strong background in biomedical research with significant experience in both bench top and field research. She has worked as a bench top research associate performing genetic oncology assays for a major biomedical research foundation. Additionally, she served as a project coordinator for a homeopathy study co-conducted by the Southwest College Research Institute and the University of Arizona’s Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. She maintains a research interest in the epigenetics and nutrigenomics particularly as they relate to oncology. In 2009, she moved to Florida and began working at Life Extension in Fort Lauderdale where she was Medical Editor for their monthly magazine. Dr. Pryce joined the faculty at Hawthorn University in April of 2014 and also serves on the faculty of Everglades University. She has recently joined the team at the Integrative Health Institute in Boca Raton, Florida.