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sugar alcohol pic

The following is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.

Last week, we talked about agave nectar. Today, we’re wrapping up our adventure in sugar alternatives with sugar alcohols. These sweeteners sound like man-made chemicals but claim to be all natural. Are they a good alternative to sugar?

What are sugar alcohols?

Methanol, maltitol, mannitol, xylitol, erythritol, glycol, sorbitol, glycerol…you know, the “-itols”. You may have seen these items listed on your labels and wondered what the heck they are. These are all examples of sugar alcohols. (They don’t actually contain any alcohol, and they’re not really sugar.)

Sugar alcohols are naturally-occurring compounds that are sweet but have a different molecular structure from regular sugars, adding an extra hydroxyl group (-OH). That small molecular difference makes your body process sugar alcohols differently from sugars – the biggest difference being a lower calorie absorption. Fewer calories sounds nice, but are sugar alcohols good for you?

Xylitol and Erythritol

We’re going to focus on two popular sugar alcohols: xylitol and erythritol. These can be found as ingredients in manufactured foods or sold as sweeteners in the sugar aisle. The American Diabetes Association recommends sugar alcohols as one of the alternatives to sugar.

Xylitol

Erythritol

* *

Structure

C5 H12 O5

C4 H10 O4

Source(s)

1) chemically synthesized from xylan which is found in corn or birch trees, 2) microbial fermentation

Occurs naturally in some fruits and fermented foods, but it is manufactured by fermenting glucose (from corn) with yeast.

Sweetness

about 90% the sweetness of sugar

60-80% the sweetness of sugar

Calories

1/3 fewer calories than sugar

almost non-caloric

Glycemic Index

7

0

Digestion

Notorious for digestive “upset”. Can also be used as a very effective laxative.

Most is absorbed before it hits your large intestine, causing very little (if any) digestive disturbance. Over 50g may cause nausea.

Benefits

Improves absorption of B vitamins. Helps heal middle ear infections.

Antioxidant properties.

Unique

Not absorbed into the bloodstream at all.

Extremely endothermic – has a cooling effect in a solution. May feel “minty”.

 

Why would I use sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols are used as an alternative to traditional sugar, thanks to their lower calorie count and low glycemic index. This is especially helpful if you’re trying to eliminate a sugar-dependent infection, like candida, or if you are on an elimination diet and restricted from eating any sugar at all. Want a zero-calorie option that’s all natural and doesn’t have the aftertaste of stevia? A sugar alcohol may be a good option. But are they good for you??

Do they have any health benefits?

The most obvious health benefits to sugar alcohols are the lower calories and lower glycemic index – a blessing for diabetics and people watching their sugar intake. However, the sugar alcohols have some pretty great benefits for your teeth too. Yes, TEETH. All sugar alcohols are indigestible to the bacteria in your mouth. This helps prevent cavities. In addition, some sugar alcohols actively fight bacteria and help to remineralize your enamel. As bizarre as the tooth benefit may be, it gets weirder. Xylitol has been shown to help heal middle ear infections and increases the absorption of B vitamins.

Any drawbacks?

Here’s the important question: are sugar alcohols safe? The FDA labels sugar alcohols “Generally Recognized as Safe”, meaning they haven’t been proven to cause any major health problems. Not bad. However, if you set your health standards above “it doesn’t kill you”, you may be wanting more information.

It seems as if sugar alcohols coast through your body, not doing much of anything. Some sugar alcohols may not be absorbed into the body, but that does not guarantee they won’t cause any trouble on the way down. Xylitol is infamous for causing digestive “issues”. The optimist would say that xylitol is a fantastic laxative. :) It can also cause bloating, cramping, and nausea. As bad as that sounds, it’s worse for dogs. Xylitol is toxic to dogs and may be fatal.

Another potential concern with sugar alcohols is the production process. Yes, sugar alcohols are naturally occurring, but they are not manufactured in a natural way. Xylitol is chemically synthesized from corn or from birch tree sap. Either way, the naturally-occurring xylan (the base for xylitol) has to go through a sugar hydrolysis process before it becomes xylitol. This results in a product that has been highly refined before it gets to you. Erythritol is always made from corn. The concern with corn-derived products? Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). Most of the corn produced in the US is genetically modified.

So, what should you do? If you want to use sugar alcohols, know your source! When buying a sugar alcohol, look for the Non-GMO Project label. This guarantees a GMO-free product. When buying Xylitol, look for a product that is 100% derived from birch trees such as the Xyla brand by Emerald Forest. Either way, keep in mind that sugar alcohols have been heavily processed.

Perspective

I’m not sure where I stand on sugar alcohols. On one hand, they sound like a great option for diabetics and people who don’t want to have any sugars. On the other hand, anything that works as an effective laxative and is poisonous to dogs doesn’t sound like something I want in my body. I go out of my way to avoid GMOs in my food; I don’t want any sneaking in to my sweeteners. How do you feel about sugar alcohols?

If you need a completely sugar-free sweetener option, I’d try a pure stevia product first. Pure stevia is made from the stevia plant and, unlike sugar alcohols, doesn’t have to be chemically processed. If you absolutely can’t stand the taste of stevia, then a non-GMO sugar alcohol may be the next best thing.

Next week…

We’re going to enjoy our hard work in the sugar aisle and talk about some quick desserts you can make using organic and alternative sugars! I’m going to share a few of my family’s kid-approved (and husband-approved) recipes that feel indulgent but aren’t packed with refined sugar. Have a great week!