Sugar Alcohols


This is the question asked of the Washington Post food health advice column on July 8:

Question: I have Type 2 diabetes. I like to have low-sugar nutrition bars handy for snacks or missed meals, so I’ve begun buying bars that contain sugar alcohols. What do you think about these bars and sugar alcohol in general?

What do we know about the person asking this question, without knowing another single fact? We know that he or she is just like one third of all Americans, diabetic or pre-diabetic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently announced that 29 million people in the United States have diabetes and another 86 million people, one in three U.S. adults, are estimated to have prediabetes. Sixty percent of Americans are also overweight, and probably wanting to know the answer to this question, too. I would rephrase this question in this way: “I like to eat foods that contain less of this or that ingredient in them. Reading this label, it looks like there is a brand new ingredient that I haven’t heard of, that seem to have a health benefit associated with it. How can I be sure this ingredient is safe or does what I want it to do?”

The column begins it’s answer in the following way:

I’m glad you asked. You’re not alone. “Lots of my clients are confused by foods labeled ‘sugar-free’ and containing one or more of these foreign-sounding ingredients with an ‘ol’ ending,” says Lise Gloede, a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and owner of Nutrition Coaching, a private practice in Arlington.

Most people don’t even ask. Looking for a magic bullet, they believe the label, they eat the food despite not knowing anything about the new ingredient. The Bold Letter “SUGAR FREE” is all the information that they need. Too bad, because that low-sugar description is only half of the news. The Post goes on:

On to sugar alcohols, also called polyols. They’re neither sugar nor alcohol but are called sugar alcohols because their chemical structure resembles that of sugar and alcohol.

Common names of sugar alcohols are sorbitol, xylitol, mannitol and maltitol syrup. A common suffix is “ol.” However, other ingredients, like isomalt, also are in this category.

Polyols are a group of low-digestible ingredients made of carbohydrates that provide, on average, 2 calories per gram vs. the 4 calories per gram in most other carbohydrates. The lower calorie counts are due to their incomplete absorption in the GI tract. When eaten in large amounts, this could translate to gas, gurgling sounds and/or diarrhea.

A brand new, just been invented for food, ingredient. Deemed safe by the FDA, which means the ingredient manufacturer ‘tested’ the ingredient, determined that it does not kill or maim people immediately and informed the FDA of this fact. It contains half the calories! This, according to the fine print means that you do not digest all of the calories it contains. However, keep reading because that “gas, gurgling sounds and/or diarrhea” language means that these new ingredients are indeed being digested in your bowels, just not by you. You are feeding one or more of the millions of bacteria that make their homes in you. Are they the good ones, or are they the ones that cause food allergies or weight gain? Nobody knows the answer to that question, nor are they looking–the FDA approved. Is this new set of ingredients safe for you, specifically? Same answer, nobody cares but you. Is it safe to eat these breakfast bars for you? Well, in my case, the answer is that I won’t even try them. If I could cook them myself in the four minutes it takes me to cook my egg and Canadian bacon breakfast there might be reason to consider it. If I knew for a fact that this food, which comes in a bag within a box didn’t violate two of my food-selection criteria, maybe I would be worried. However, since I don’t eat foods out of boxes, bags, or bottles, then this concern is one that I have settled long before I get close enough to read the health claims on the brightly colored packaging.

The final answer to the question posed to the Post is surprisingly similar to my own answer:

So are there benefits of foods with polyols for people with diabetes? “I don’t generally recommend them, because the majority aren’t much lower in calories and total carbohydrate, so their advantages are limited,” Gloede says. But check them out for yourself. Read labels and taste-test products. If you find products that satisfy your taste buds, shave calories and unhealthful sugars, and lead to a lower glucose rise, then fit them into your eating plan. {emphasis my own}

You are going to do what you want to do. You are going to change when you are ready to change. My advice is something that I have no trouble following, but until you are truly unsatisfied with the results you are getting from your processed foods, you will continue looking for ways to go on living like you are living right now. Good luck to you, but you can change very easily if you do it gradually, changing this or that bad habit for the good ones, one small change at at time.

About dcarmack

I am an instrument technician at the electric utility servicing the Kansas City Missouri metropolitan area. I am in the IBEW, Local 412. I was trained to be a nuclear power plant operator in the USN and served on submarines. I am a Democrat, even more so than those serving in Congress or the White House.
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2 Responses to Sugar Alcohols

  1. Good Post–I agree. Although I am not diabetic, my wife is. It was a book (Protein Power) recommended by a Dr I met that my wife was reading that led me to learn about lipids. The book is for diabetics and recommends a protein based diet, but it also points out the link between inflammation and lipids. My wife could not understand the chapter because it used a lot of chemical terms and asked me to read it and explain it to her. I do all the cooking and I do cook pasta or rice occasionally and I make my own flax tortillas (the recipe is in my book), but we often have meals with no carb (other than the carbs in veggies). We do not eat bread, or chips. Our favorite desert is strawberries or blueberries with 2 spoons of grape nuts, real whipped cream and one piece of Dove dark chocolate shaved over the two deserts.


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