Sweeteners that have been around for centuries like sorghum syrup and maple syrup are a delicious way to satisfy your sweet tooth with a few health benefits too. But what about the new sweeteners we keep hearing about?
I probably get more questions about this category of sweeteners than any other sweetener out there and for good reason. They’re called sugar alcohols, but they’re not sugar, and they’re not alcohol.
You may have seen xylitol in your chewing gum or toothpaste and wondered, “Is that an artificial sweetener?”
You may have heard of an “-itol” that causes diarrhea and discounted it immediately, kind of like Olestra.
Or you may have heard praises sung by trusted nutrition sources and hoped that an “-itol” would be a good alternative sweetener without the calories.
Is Sugar Alcohol Bad For You?
I have to say, I think what amazes me most about this entire category of sweeteners is how prevalent they are, and yet how unquestioned. Many stevia blends have much more erythritol than stevia, yet people aren’t asking, “What’s that thing?” They’re just saying, “Is stevia safe?” because that’s the only sweetener listed on the FRONT of the package.
I’m not even sure if my antennae have been trained enough to catch all the “-itols” that might be buried in ingredients lists, as I’ve been so hyper-vigilant about completely artificial sweeteners.
How is a Sugar Alcohol Processed
There are a lot of choices in this category, all “generally recognized as safe” or GRAS as far as the FDA is concerned. What does that mean? No one has proven it harmful. Innocent until proven guilty it kills someone and they can prove it.
Here’s a list of what to watch for on labels:
- hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH) – a family of sweeteners including hydrogenated glucose syrup, maltitol or sorbitol syrup
Sugar alcohols aren’t alcohol but have some chemical resemblances to it, and they often begin with a sugar but are also not sugar.
I keep trying to wrap my brain around exactly how these things are produced (clue number one that it’s not really food), and I just can’t do it. They all begin with some sort of natural starch or sugar (sometimes a chemical equivalent nowadays), then are fermented – some sources say hydrogenated or hydrolyzed – into a sugar alcohol. How this all plays out is beyond me…but let’s move on.
What are Sugar Alcohols Made From?
In case you’re wondering just what you’re eating, these are the initial sources for the “-ose” – the sugar/starch found in nature – from which the “-itols” are derived:
- sorbitol, from glucose
- xylitol, from xylan, in birch bark – likely any sweetener that has “birch bark” in its title is xylitol
- erythritol, from corn
- mannitol, from glucose syrups
- lactitol, from lactose
- isomalt, from sucrose
Benefits of Sugar Alcohols – Can They Be Healthy?
Similar to artificial sweeteners, the goal of sugar alcohols seems to be to reduce calories and glycemic load. Sugar alcohols are not calorie-free, but have 1/20 to 1/2 as many calories as sugar (from 0.2 to 2.7 calories per gram, compared to 4 calories in sucrose, table sugar). Sometimes they are listed as a “zero calorie sweetener,” though, so there must be a labeling loophole like the “zero grams trans fat” that allows manufacturers to list “zero” when it’s less than 0.5 g per serving.
They have fewer calories only because they’re not fully absorbed by the gut, passing on through without impacting the system. Or at least…without being absorbed. There’s something that doesn’t sit right with me about avoiding calories by eating things that are supposed to go right through you. Where’s the research on the safety there?
Whole corn goes right through most of the time, too (you know?), so does that mean it doesn’t contribute any calories to the meal? I just don’t know about that…
Unlike artificial sweeteners, which are usually 30-300 times sweeter than sugar, the sugar alcohols are less sweet than sugar, with 30-90% of the sweetness, depending on which one we’re talking about.
Almost all sugar alcohols are found naturally in some fruits (which fuels the labeling “all natural” even though they’re made in labs nowadays).
They do have an impact on insulin, but sugar alcohols require far less insulin response than other sweeteners, so they are lower on the glycemic index and often recommended for diabetics. It is important to note that some or most (?) DO incur an insulin response and are not “freebies.”
From a podcast by Pharmacist Ben (Ben Fuchs): xylitol will not touch insulin levels (although recent literature suggests that just the sweet taste of something may raise insulin). He calls it a “sweetener that’s like a nutritional supplement” and is a fan.
None of them negatively impact cavities and tooth decay, which gives them a leg up over other natural sweeteners and sugar.
A few sugar alcohols have particular benefits worth mentioning:
- Xylitol may increase absorption of B-vitamins and calcium, re-mineralize tooth enamel and fight ear infections
- Erythritol is often lauded as the best of the sugar alcohols – zero calories, zero glycemic effect, and it may even have an antioxidant effect.
Nutritional Profile & Glycemic Index of Sugar Alcohols
The nutrition facts for one teaspoon (4g) of a sugar alcohol:
- sorbitol: 8 cal., 4 g carbs
- xylitol: 10 cal., 4 g carbs, glycemic index = 7
- erythritol: 0.8 cal., 4 g carbs, glycemic index = 0
- mannitol: 6.4 cal., glycemic index = 0
- lactitol: 8 cal., glycemic index = 6
- isomalt: 9 cal., glycemic index = 9
- maltitol: 10.8 cal., glycemic index = 36
- maltitol syrup: 12 cal., glycemic index = 52
- to contrast, here’s sucrose (table sugar): 16 cal., 4 g carbs, glycemic index = 65 (glucose = 100)
- Note: the carbs in sugar alcohols are “sugar alcohol” carbs, which are often not “counted” for diabetic or low-carb diets…
Possible Disadvantages of Sugar Alcohols
They’re not pleasant.
Because sugar alcohols can (a) ferment in the intestines and (b) are not absorbed fully, thereby enacting “passive diffusion” in the colon; in larger amounts, they can cause gas, bloating, and diarrhea, plus painful cramping in many individuals with just a small amount.
In that case, I feel like I wouldn’t recommend sugar alcohols to anyone who has any digestive weakness: IBS, Crohn’s, colitis, constipation, ETC., just in case. As a mom, I would include children on that list, too. It doesn’t seem worth it to experiment on them…
Sugar alcohols, although found in nature, have only been separated from their whole foods and used as sweeteners for a short time: erythritol was approved in 1990, for example.
Andy Bellatti, my favorite online dietician, admits that sugar alcohols are better than artificial sweeteners for those who need to avoid glycemic load, but he’s big on reminding people that we need to wean ourselves off the addiction to a sweet taste on our tongues, period:
Since they still add a lot of sweetness to foods, they do absolutely nothing in terms of helping our palates get used to lower amounts of sugar in our diets.
Award-winning cookbook author and nutrition expert Rebecca Wood puts xylitol in the category of artificial sweeteners and says this:
Xylitol is dangerous—even life-threatening—for pets according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Xylitol, a pure crystalline chemical, or hydrogenated polyol, is typically a byproduct of the plywood industry but it may also synthesized from cornstalks. Yes, data correlates xylitol with the reduction of dental caries, however there are more wholesome ways of preventing tooth decay.
And the Weston A. Price Foundation website, although not coming down on sugar alcohols as a non-food to be avoided at all costs (which surprised me), list the following side effects:
[Sugar alcohols can cause] metabolic acidosis, which can lead to acid reflux and an increased risk of cancer of the larynx. …also promote dehydration and loss of electrolytes, creating feelings of excessive thirst. …Those who are trying to avoid carbohydrates and burn body fat should also know that sugar alcohols will immediately take the body out of ketosis, the state wherein fat reserves rather than dietary calories are being metabolized. . . assuming that the body was in a state of ketosis to begin with.
Additional concerns with sugar alcohols stem from the fact that they seem to increase the frequency of seizures in epileptics, and children are especially sensitive to the gastrointestinal side effects, possibly due to their propensity for bingeing on sweet foods. Children who regularly consume sugar alcohols also seem to have an increased incidence of childhood obesity.105
Erythritol Stands Out As The Best
Many sources seem to peg Erythritol as the safest, easiest to use sugar alcohol.
Erythritol is the easiest to digest, with up to 90% absorbed by the small intestine before it can enter the colon and cause digestive distress. It is heat stable so can be used for baking, and it’s a white powder that people can understand when they sub it for sugar.
Ben Fuchs, a pharmacist, deems xylitol the best sweetener for diabetics.
How to Use Sugar Alcohols
More than using them, it’s important to know where they’re already used in packages, if you ask me, especially if they give you pause as a class of sweeteners.
Erythritol, for example, is often blended with other natural (stevia) and artificial (aspartame) sweeteners and tends to be the main add-in in those stevia baking blends. You think you’re buying stevia, but you’re really buying erythritol enhanced with a little stevia, since it’s not as sweet as sugar.
Xylitol is equally as sweet as sugar, so you can use it with a 1:1 ratio. It is heat stable and can be used in baking. (But it’s more likely to cause gas/diarrhea/bloating.)
In packages, you’ll find it everywhere in toothpaste, “natural” or not, plus quite often in gum and medicines.
Baking with Sugar Alcohols
Buying a new alternative sweetener, whether it’s as simple as sucanat (which intimidated me for over a year!) or as complicated as stevia or sugar alcohols like erythritol or xylitol, can be a tricky foray into healthier food preparation.
It’s not quite like trying a new recipe or substituting whole wheat flour for white flour in your favorite healthy pumpkin muffins, you know? You’re really trying to incorporate a new ingredient into your old recipes, and all you want to do is figure out an easy substitution and roll with it.
You can purchase just plain erythritol and use it in baking – it’s 70% as sweet as sugar and heat stable, so technically you’d need to use a bit more than whatever sugar is called for in your recipe, or just accept less sweetness. I admit, I had a sample from NuNaturals and after a year of avoiding it because I wasn’t sure what to do with it, I gave it to my mother-in-law. I think for diabetics or anyone who is using an artificial sweetener regularly, erythritol is a better option.
However, I don’t think she knows what to do with it either. I think it’s just sitting on her counter (can’t say I blame her!).
NuNaturals also has a stevia baking blend which I did try in my trusty pumpkin muffin recipe. I’ve used a lot of sweeteners in that thing – white sugar, sucanat, honey, maple syrup, a bit of molasses – and it always tastes wonderful. This batch had a decided aftertaste which I can only compare to the cringe effect I get when I accidentally ingest artificial sweetener. (I’m not sure the blend I linked to was the one I tested out; perhaps they’ve updated the formula.) I gave away the rest of the tub to my sister-in-law, hoping she could get some use out of it.
What’s up with Stevia Blends?
If you shop the baking aisle at your local store, you’ll see plenty of products marketed as “stevia.” Almost all of them are going to be formulated to look like sugar and act like sugar. This means the companies (PepsiCo and CocaCola both have a brand name of “stevia”) have added quite a bit of bulk, since real stevia powder is 300 times as sweet as sugar and could never be subbed one-for-one.
Usually these blends – TruVia and PureVia are two that are neither True nor Pure – are mostly erythritol, sometimes dextrose (a corn sugar), sometimes other stuff. I do understand why the companies are trying to make blends that act like sugar. As I mentioned above, even someone like me who does plenty of experimenting in the kitchen doesn’t really know what to do with something that has too many “rules” to use it in my favorite recipes. However, it’s tricky labeling to emphasize only the stevia.
It’s really important to remember to read the backs of the labels – if you’re buying a blend, you need to understand that your research on safety must focus on all the ingredients, not just the stevia the company is trying to highlight.
I was listening to a great podcast from Sean at Underground Wellness (at least I hope I’m sourcing that right!), and he was sponsored by ZSweet – he’s big into the low carb movement, and discussed with his guest how awesome the stevia-based, zero-calorie sweetener was.
Naturally, I contacted them for a sample for the Sweet, Sweet Summer series.
When it came, I realized it was mostly erythritol with a little stevia.
That just goes to show you shouldn’t always listen to everything a random blogger says…
I was determined to try it anyway, since I don’t think erythritol is harmful. We tested it in yogurt and on strawberries, and I used the powdered version for a batch of my homemade frosting – side-by-side with regular white powdered sugar.
Here are my results and opinions:
My husband likes the ZSweet packets better than the stevia white powder – no bitterness at all.
I thought they were (1) quite sweet and (2) starting feeling odd in my mouth after a while. There’s still something “artificial” feeling about it. It coated the spoon with a slippery, tacky film. I didn’t like the feel of my mouth afterward. ??? I would recommend it, of course, over any artificial sweetener, so if you have someone in your life who uses Nutrasweet or Splenda, for example, I’d try to talk them into switching, or if you absolutely cannot have sugar or even honey or maple syrup because of a medical condition, this seems like a great option to sweeten tea, coffee or yogurt. However, I’d still go with plain stevia extract as a top choice for both flavor and real food/health.
The powdered ZSweet “poofs” like a mushroom cloud. This was a bit disconcerting…
The frosting smells like a Smartie or something, very sweet, whereas the regular sugar version (of the frosting) smells like nothing.
ZSweet acted very differently than powdered sugar when stirring in the egg – crumbly – but once I added the sugar syrup, it all looked “about” the same.
On the taste: there’s something – maybe citrusy – that overwhelms the almond flavoring. People could still taste the almond, but I barely could. It explodes in the mouth with sweetness – MUCH more sweet than the regular sugar version of frosting. There’s something more tingly than the regular frosting – like if frosting is something creamy, this stuff is disintegrating or dissolving in your mouth.
Personally, I prefer the regular frosting MUCH more.
My mother-in-law didn’t notice the difference at all in a side-by-side taste test – maybe because her mouth is used to artificial sweeteners? Or just because.
My husband notices the difference and prefers the regular, but still likes the Zsweet, and my sister-in-law, who does use artificial sweeteners, said the same.
I discovered that the ZSweet frosting made my teeth hurt. That really bothered me at first and made me think it was totally unnatural, but then I realized that sometimes, eating plain dates also make my teeth hurt with the sweetness. (I really should get back to oil pulling…) I suppose this just goes to show that even though ZSweet is marketed as “zero calories, zero glycemic effect, zero worries!” there’s still a definite bodily response to the sweetness.
One other difference: at room temp for the same amount of time, the Zsweet frosting stayed more solid, very slightly crumbly, rather than creamy and quickly softening like the sugar version.
My parents and godparents visited us during Michigan strawberry season, and I subjected them all to a sweetener taste test. Beware of visiting me; I’ll probably ask your opinion on something!
Overall, the ZSweet scored rather well: it definitely adds sweetness, doesn’t have much flavor of its own, little to no aftertaste, and everyone liked it the best of all of them.
This was compared to palm sugar (which everyone agreed added too much flavor and hid the lovely strawberry taste) and NuNaturals stevia packets, which made my godmother grimace and practically spit it out. I really notice a bitter aftertaste to the NuNaturals packets. Both men didn’t notice any difference with ZSweet, NuNaturals, or sugar. My godparents do use artificial sweeteners, Sweet ‘n’ Low only (saccharin); my parents do not. My godmother did say that she has tried Truvia and it made her physically ill – not an uncommon reaction to erythritol.
I didn’t have my Sweetleaf stevia at that point, but personally I prefer that over all the packets we tested. I think it has the least aftertaste (none), although my husband prefers NuNaturals over Sweetleaf. I still choose the liquid stevia, and both brands seem to be processed without chemicals.
Final Thoughts on Erythritol, Xylitol and Other Sugar Alcohols
I can’t say I had great luck with natural sugar substitutes that are dressed up to look like sugar. They’re all incredibly expensive, so if you had trouble digesting the triple cost of sucanat over white sugar (or empathized with my hesitance), you’ll really want to steer clear of stevia and erythritol baking blends.
My final decision is that they’re not worth it for me (even if they were less expensive). I’d rather use another really natural sweetener or just find another way to have a fun dessert without the carbs if that was vital to my health. Grain-based muffins and birthday cakes aren’t the best for diabetics, anyway, and who needs a sweetener on the perfection of a fresh Michigan strawberry!
If you’ve missed any of the natural sweeteners series, here’s a list:
- Why is White Sugar Bad for You?
- Maple Syrup and Maple Sugar
- Does Raw Honey have Health Benefits?
- How to Bake with Honey (and Honey Recipes)
- Unrefined Dehydrated Whole Cane Sugar (Rapadura, Sucanat, Panela and Muscovado)
- Facts on Stevia: is it natural?
- How to Use Stevia
- The Dangers of Artificial Sweeteners
- Sorghum: a Sweetener with Actual Value (update: tried sorghum on cornbread, and WOW, is it awesome!)
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