. Are Sugar Alcohols Bad For You: A Dietitian Unpacks the Mystery of Sugar Alcohols

Are Sugar Alcohols Bad For You: A Dietitian Unpacks the Mystery of Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols are more popular than ever with the increase in low-carb and keto products on the market. Have you ever seen sugar alcohol on a food label in candy, sugar free preserves, cereal, ice cream, protein bars, or gum and wondered if sugar alcohol is bad for you?

Let’s dive into the details.

What are Sugar Alcohols?

The name sugar alcohol is confusing because sugar alcohols are not actually sugar or alcohol. Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate, but unlike regular sugar, they have a unique chemical structure with both sugar and alcohol components, however they don’t actually contain ethanol (the type of alcohol you find in drinks).

Sugar alcohols are considered a low calorie sweetener, they are not a zero calorie sweetener.

They can be found naturally in small amounts in fruits and vegetables, but are also produced commercially. Some types of sugar alcohol are the same sweetness as sugar while others are slightly less sweet.

Common Types of Sugar Alcohols

Below is a list of the common types of sugar alcohols that you might see in foods you are consuming.


Xylitol is found naturally in some fruits and vegetables and also produced commercially. It is about the same sweetness as sugar but it contains 40% fewer calories. It may have a beneficial effect on dental health by reducing cavity causing bacteria which is why it is commonly used in chewing gum, mints, and toothpaste.


Erythritol is one of the most commonly used types of sugar alcohols. It is found naturally in certain fruits such as grapes and pears and is produced commercially through fermentation of corn starch. It is about 30-40% less sweet than sugar and contains only 6% of the calories of sugar. Erythritol is not known for causing digestive issues like some of the other sugar alcohols.


Sorbitol is also found naturally in fruits such as apples, pears, and prunes and is produced commercially from corn starch. It is about 40% less sweet than sugar and contains the same amount of calories as sugar.  It can cause digestive discomfort in some people.


Maltitol is commercially produced from maltose, a sugar derived from starch. It is about 10% less sweet than sugar and has around the same number of calories. It also can cause digestive discomfort in high doses.


Mannitol is naturally found in small amounts in celery, olives, and mushrooms and is commercially produced from seaweed. It is about 30% less sweet than sugar and contains about half of the calories compared to sugar.  Mannitol is also known for causing digestive discomfort in some people.


Isomalt is produced commercially from sucrose (table sugar). It has about half the sweetness of sugar and about the same number of calories. Isomalt is less likely to cause digestive issues compared to other sugar alcohols.


Lactitol is produced commercially from lactose (milk sugar). It is about 70% less sweet than sugar and has about the same number of calories. It is less likely to cause digestive issues than other sugar alcohols

Possible Downsides to Sugar Alcohols

  • Digestive issues – Sugar alcohols are only partially absorbed which can lead to bloating, gas, and diarrhea in some people.
  • Limited sweetness – Some sugar alcohols are less sweet than table sugar which sometimes means they need to blend the sugar alcohols with other sweeteners to achieve desired sweetness level.
  • Not carb free – While many sugar alcohols are lower in carbs than actual sugar, they still contribute some carbohydrates and can have an impact on the blood sugar
  • Misleading food labels and claims – Many products that contain sugar alcohols instead of sugar are labeled as “sugar-free” which doesn’t always mean “carb-free” and these foods still can raise the blood sugar in many people.

Benefits of Sugar Alcohols

  • Reduced calories and carbs – Compared to sugar, sugar alcohols often provide fewer calories and carbs which can help with weight management and blood sugar control.
  • Lower blood sugar impact – Since sugar alcohols are only partially absorbed, they may cause a smaller, slower blood sugar rise compared to sugar.
  • May promote a healthy gut – Although more research is needed in this area, certain sugar alcohols may actually contribute to a healthy digestive system by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria.
  • Dental benefits – Believe it or not, some sugar alcohols, like xylitol, may inhibit the growth of bacteria in our mouths that cause cavities. This is why many brands of sugar free gum, mints, and toothpaste actually use xylitol as the sweetener.

How Do Sugar Alcohols Impact Carb Counting

Many products on the market today advertise the net carbs on their packaging. The net carbs are generally calculated by subtracting the fiber and the sugar alcohols from the total carbs, claiming that they are not absorbed by the body, however this is only partially true.

For example, this Atkins Bar contains 20 grams of total carbs, 7 grams of fiber, and 10 grams of sugar alcohol. It is advertised as a product with 3 grams of net carbs due to subtracting the fiber and sugar alcohol.

For people with diabetes, we suggest subtracting half of the grams of fiber and half of the grams of sugar alcohol grams from the total carbs if the product has 5 grams or more of either of these nutrients. Since most types of fiber and sugar alcohols are still partially absorbed by the body, they can still raise the blood sugar to some degree.

Looking at the product above, that would bring the carb amount down to 11.5 grams (20 grams total carb – 3.5 grams of fiber – 5 grams of sugar alcohol = 11.5 grams of carbs).

Is Allulose a Sugar Alcohol?

Allulose is another type of sweetener that has become popular in recent years. It is found naturally in fruits like figs and raisins, but also commercially produced. Many people wonder if allulose is also a sugar alcohol, however it actually is classified as a “rare sugar” and while it shares some similarities with sugar alcohols, there are a few key differences.

While both allulose and sugar alcohols are sugar substitutes, they have different chemical makeups. Allulose is absorbed by the body but not metabolized, meaning it does not contribute significantly to calorie intake. It is about 30% less sweet than sugar and contains nearly zero calories. Allulose also does not have the same digestive side effects as sugar alcohols.


Sugar alcohols are a low calorie sweetener that may help with reducing blood sugar spikes, promoting healthy teeth, and lowering the amount of calories we eat which could help contribute to weight management, however they should still be consumed in moderation.

Sugar alcohols may cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea, especially if eaten in large quantities. It is also important to remember that sugar alcohols can still have some impact on raising blood sugars, they are not truly a “sugar-free” food.

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