By Rini Jablonski, Healthy Aggies Intern
You’re hungry as you walk past the protein bar aisle in the grocery store and think “this could be a healthy alternative to the delicious but sugary granola bars in the next aisle”. We’re all used to hearing that “sugar is bad”, so when you walk over and pick up a protein bar with only one gram of sugar, that’s great right?
One of the ingredients commonly listed on these protein bars is “sugar alcohol”. I have personally always thought that sugar alcohols are healthier than sugars because of this protein bar association. From a “cutting back on calories” standpoint, sugar alcohols accomplish the goal. But there are five main ideas to take away regarding sugar alcohols when trying to decide.
- What are sugar alcohols: Sugar alcohols are not to be confused with artificial sweeteners. They are natural substances and are extracted from plant products such as fruits and berries. Their chemical structure is different from that of regular sugar, and some of the most common sugar alcohols you’ll see listed in products include mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, isomalt, maltitol, and Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates.
- Sugar alcohols provide fewer calories: This is because they are similar to fiber in that their chemical structure is harder for our body to break down. Because of this, they are not as easily absorbed by the small intestine. In addition, they do not result in a high spike in blood sugar. This is why sugar alcohols are becoming increasingly popular with diabetic individuals.
- Sugar alcohols are better for your teeth: Unlike sugar, sugar alcohols are beneficial for your teeth. Bacteria normally consume sugar on your teeth and secrete acid that wears away at your tooth enamel. These same bacteria will attempt to consume the sugar alcohols as well, but because sugar alcohols are harder to metabolize, their growth is inhibited. That’s why you see Xylitol commonly used in gum.
- Overconsumption can result in digestive problems: This is a big negative and the main reason why these ingredients are not used in greater quantity. Because sugar alcohols are harder to metabolize, overconsumption of them can result in digestive problems, sometimes severe, like cramping, gas, and diarrhea. For those with sensitive stomachs, it is probably better to avoid sugar alcohols all together.
- We don’t know the long-term effects: The use of sugar alcohols has only recently become popular. Further research must be done to determine the long-term effects of sugar alcohol consumption.
The takeaway: From what we know now, sugar alcohols appear to be a decent alternative to high-calorie sweeteners and do not present any immediate major health concerns. As with any food however, it is always best to be mindful of portion control and be conscious of the products you are consuming. Something containing sugar alcohol sweeteners may distract from the fact that the product has a very high fat or carbohydrate content. And as mentioned, we do not currently know the long-term effects of consuming sugar alcohols, so use the information in this article to make an informed decision about your food!