Q: It seems like more natural products are using sugar alcohols like erythritol lately. Are they healthier than sugar?
A: You’re definitely right: there are many products touted as healthy and sugar-free that now list mysterious ingredients that end in “-tol.” Those—like xylitol and erythritol—are all sugar alcohols. (Tricky label fact: Even products that market themselves as being made with stevia often contain more erythritol than stevia.)
While I don’t think they’re as bad for your body as straight-up white sugar or artificial sweeteners like Splenda or aspartame, I generally recommend avoiding them for a couple of reasons. Here’s what you need to know.
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What Are Sugar Alcohols?
Sugar alcohols are naturally occurring compounds found in plants like fruits and vegetables, but they can also be commercially produced from other forms of sugar. While they are derived from sugar, they have a different chemical structure that alters the way the body metabolizes them.
They are typically a little less sweet than table sugar and contain fewer calories. The most common ones you’ll encounter are:
Erythritol: Found in popular products like Halo Top ice cream and Bai beverages, it has 70 percent the sweetness of sugar and 20 percent of the calories per gram compared to table sugar. It’s mainly in baked goods, chewing gum, and some beverages.
Sorbitol: This one’s about half as sweet as table sugar and contains about half the calories. It’s in many toothpastes, sugar-free, gum, and candy.
Xylitol: Xylitol’s the sweetest of the bunch but still has just over half the calories of sugar since it’s absorbed slowly and only partially utilized by the body. It’s also in gum, candy, and many other packaged foods.
What’s Wrong with Sugar Alcohols?
So if they add sweetness with very few calories and often come from natural sources, what’s the problem?
First of all, I do think they’re the lesser of two evils compared to artificial sweeteners, but there’s very little research (good or bad) on their long-term effects. They could also lead to sugar cravings. When you eat foods that taste sweet, the body expects calories to follow. When the food doesn’t deliver, it prompts you for more.
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And the biggest issue is your digestive system, which is crucial to good health in so many ways. Sugar alcohols are considered low-digestible carbohydrates (LDCs) because they’re either partially absorbed in the small intestine or not absorbed at all, and this means they can cause some unpleasant GI symptoms. Eating lots of erythritol has been linked to diarrhea and nausea, xylitol has been shown to cause cramps, and sorbitol can have laxative effects (Proof: it’s even approved by the FDA as a laxative!).
Your gut health is really important to me (weird, I know, but it’s the truth!), so I say steer clear of sugar alcohols as much as possible. Focus on eating foods that are naturally low in sugar, and save sugar in all its forms for conscious indulgences.