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Alcohol and Health

What Is Sugar Alcohol? Is It Bad for You?

April 16, 2024
15 min read
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A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
April 16, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
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Is Sugar Alcohol the Same Alcohol We Drink?

  • Sugar alcohols are sugar-alternative sweeteners that have fewer calories, are better for dental hygiene, and don’t cause a rise in blood sugar levels as much as traditional sugars. Consuming too much sugar alcohol can lead to digestive problems.
  • In moderation, sugar alcohols are safe to consume. 
  • Reframe can help you take control of your health with neuroscience-based content to help you quit or cut back on alcohol. 

Do you ever catch yourself reading food labels and wondering what all those ingredients actually are? If you’re trying to cut out sugars from your diet, you’ll probably see a lot of “-itols” in the ingredients. But what the heck is xylitol? Is it something we should be eating? 

In this blog, we will learn what sugar alcohols are, if they are safe to consume, some places we can commonly find them, and if they have anything to do with the alcohol that makes us drunk. 

What Are Sugar Alcohols?

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Sugar alcohols, or polyols, are sugar substitutes used to sweeten our food. Some sugar alcohols occur naturally in fruits and vegetables such as apples, pears, blackberries, peaches, prunes, pineapples, olives, asparagus, sweet potatoes, and carrots. Others are produced industrially. Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate, but they do not contain ethanol — the intoxicating ingredient that is in the alcohol we drink. We will touch more on this later. 

Sugar alcohols have a distinctive, sweet taste but lack the dense calories that regular sugars contain. The food industry uses sugar alcohols as thickeners, sweeteners, and substitutes for table sugar or sucrose. Our small intestine only partially absorbs sugar alcohols, which means they have a lower impact on our blood sugar levels. 

Spotting Sugar Alcohols in Our Foods

We can spot sugar alcohols in our foods by reading food labels. Let’s review some of the most common sugar alcohols and what foods we can typically find them in: 

  • Xylitol. Xylitol is naturally found in fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, raspberries, mushrooms, and cauliflower, and it’s about as sweet as sugar. We can find xylitol in foods such as chewing gum, cough syrup, mouthwash, toothpaste, some peanut or nut butters, and sugar-free or “skinny” desserts. 

  • Sorbitol. Sorbitol is found naturally in fruits such as berries, apples, and pears and it’s about 60% as sweet as sugar. Sorbitol is often found in baked goods, chocolates, frozen desserts, hard candies, snack bars, and sugar-free chewing gum. 

  • Erythritol. Erythritol is very low in calories but provides 70% of the sweetness of regular sugars. It is naturally found in mushrooms and fermented foods like beer, cheese, sake, soy sauce, and wine. Erythritol can be found in zero/low-calorie sweeteners such as Truvia and Splenda, in diet or zero-sugar beverages, and in chewing gums, chocolates, hard candies, ice creams, and yogurts. 

  • Isomalt. Isomalt is a mixture of mannitol and sorbitol, two common sugar alcohols, and it’s roughly 50% as sweet as sugar. Isomalt is an artificial sweetener used in the food industry and is most often found in sugar-free hard candies. 

  • Lactitol. Lactitol is produced from lactose and has 30% to 24% sweetness compared to sugar. Lactitol is commonly found in low-fat foods, sugar-free candies, cookies, chocolates, and ice creams. A form of lactitol is used as a laxative in a prescription medication for constipation. 

Other sugar alcohols we might find in our foods, medications, or dental products include hydrogenated starch hydrolysates, mannitol, and maltitol. Note that the list above is not exhaustive. Anyone concerned about sugar alcohols should consult a doctor or dietitian. 

Now that we have the basic information on sugar alcohols, let’s get into the nitty-gritty. Keep reading to learn if sugar alcohols are bad for us and what science suggests about them. 

Spotting Sugar Alcohols in Our Foods

Are Sugar Alcohols Bad for Us? 

For the most part, sugar alcohols are safe to consume. As with any product we eat, the full impact of sugar alcohols varies based on factors of individual tolerance, the quantity we consume, and our overall diets. Sugar alcohols are safe to consume in moderation, but there are some potential reasons they are harmful to us:

  • Digestive issues. Sugar alcohols can lead to digestive problems. Sugar alcohols are partially absorbed by the small intestine, but the rest will go to the large intestine or colons before being broken down. If the sugar alcohols are broken down in the colon, it can lead to discomforts such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea. We are more likely to develop digestive problems if we eat large amounts of sugar alcohols. 

  • Caloric content. Despite sugar alcohols containing fewer calories than regular sugar, they are not calorie-free. Sugar alcohols will contribute about 1.5 to 3 calories per gram of food. Although there will be fewer calories than in traditional sugars, they can still add up. Those managing calorie intake need to be aware of this.  

  • Individual tolerance. Some of us may be more sensitive to the digestive issues associated with consuming sugar alcohols. Those with irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn's disease may be more susceptible to the negative impacts of sugar alcohols. 

  • Possible blood clots. A recent study found that people who had more erythritol circulating in their blood were more likely to have blood clots or strokes. It is important to note that this study does not prove erythritol causes blood clots or strokes as it was just a noted relationship or observation. 

Being mindful of the types and amounts of sugar alcohols we consume helps us avoid the negative effects. Consuming sugar alcohols in moderation is key to avoiding problems. Anyone concerned about a reaction to sugar alcohols should consult a healthcare professional such as a registered dietitian. 

The Good Sides of Sugar Alcohol

On the bright side, sugar alcohols have allowed for the creation of low-calorie and sugar-free options for those who need it. There are many positive aspects to sugar alcohols:

  • Sugar alcohols have fewer calories than traditional sugars and can be beneficial for weight management. 

  • They don’t affect our blood sugar levels as substantially as regular sugars. 

  • Some sugar alcohols have dental health benefits because they are not broken down in the mouth. Science shows that xylitol can reduce tooth decay and reduce the growth of cavity-causing bacteria. 

  • Sugar alcohols are a low-carbohydrate alternative to regular sugars and can be used to sweeten food. 

There are benefits to sugar alcohols, especially for cutting out traditional sugars, but are they a good option for those with diabetes?

Can We Have Sugar Alcohol If We Have Diabetes? 

Many sugar-free or low-carb products that use sugar alcohols as sweeteners are designed for people with diabetes. These products allow us to enjoy sweet flavors without the same impact on blood sugar levels, so yes — sugar alcohols are a safe option for those of us with diabetes! 

Sugar alcohols are not fully absorbed in the small intestines and have a less significant effect on our blood glucose levels compared to regular sugar. This makes it easier to manage blood sugar levels if we have diabetes. Sugar alcohols do not require insulin to absorb them, unlike glucose, making them a more suitable option for those who needs to regulate insulin levels. 

Alternatives to Sugar Alcohols

Sugar alcohols have their downsides. If we’re worried about the bad sides of sugar alcohols and want to avoid them, don’t worry. There are plenty of alternatives to sugar alcohol: 

  • Saccharin (Sweet’N Low, Sugar Twin)
  • Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal)
  • Sucralose (Splenda)
  • Stevia
  • Tagatose 

Nondiabetics worried about consuming artificial sweeteners or sugar substitutes such as sugar alcohols can always stick with regular sugar. 

Is Sugar Alcohol the Same as Intoxicating Alcohol?

While sugar alcohols are used to sweeten foods and may have some health benefits, they are unrelated to the consumption of alcoholic beverages and do not result in the same physiological and psychological effects associated with alcohol consumption. It's important to distinguish between these two categories of substances to avoid confusion.

The chemical structure of sugar alcohols is a hybrid between sugars (e.g., glucose or table sugar) and alcohols (e.g., ethanol). The alcohol we consume with the psychoactive effects is ethanol. Sugar alcohols differ from traditional sugars because they contain a functional alcohol group. An alcohol functional group, however, is not the same as the ethanol or the alcohol we drink because they are not the same chemical structures. Therefore, sugar alcohols do not have the same intoxicating properties as ethanol.

Key Takeaways

Sugar alcohols are low-calorie sweeteners used in place of regular sugars. If we consume too much, they can cause digestive problems, but they are mostly okay for us to consume in moderation. There are benefits to sugar alcohols — better for our dental health, glucose levels, and blood sugar levels. Sugar alcohols do not contain ethanol or the psychoactive properties of the alcohol we typically drink. 

Summary FAQs 

1. Can sugar alcohol make you drunk?

No, sugar alcohols do not contain ethanol so they do not intoxicate us. 

2. Does sugar alcohol raise blood sugar?

Sugar alcohols can raise our blood sugar levels but to a lesser extent than regular sugars. 

3. Is sugar alcohol alcohol?

Sugar alcohol is a hybrid of sugar and alcohol. Sugar alcohols contain a chemical component of alcohol but are not the same as the alcohol (ethanol) we usually consume. 

4. Is erythritol safe?

Erythritol is generally believed to be safe in moderation. As a sugar alcohol, it is better for us when trying to control our blood sugar or glucose levels, and it can improve our dental health. Eating too much erythritol can lead to bloating, diarrhea, or stomach pain. 

5. Are sugar alcohols safe for diabetics?

Yes, sugar alcohols are usually safe if we are diabetic because they don’t raise our blood glucose levels as much as traditional sugars.

Sugar Alcohols Are Safe, But Are You Ready To Quit Intoxicating Alcohol? Reframe Can Help!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

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Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

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The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today! 

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