Sugar Alcohols

In our quest to explore sweeteners and how they affect the body, let’s take a look at sugar alcohols.

Sugar alcohols are neither sugar nor alcohol

So how did they get that misnomer? Basically their chemical structures look similar to alcohol and sugar, so someone coined the name sugar alcohol. As another type of carbohydrate they contain calories, but only about half of the calories of table sugar which contains 4 kcal/gram.

And now on to another misnomer – any food containing sugar alcohols can be labeled sugar-free since they replace full-calorie sugar sweeteners. Are you beginning to get confused? Me too. Somehow sweeteners need some clear definitions. So, sugar-free food is not really free of sweeteners or calories derived from sweeteners. And manufacturers rely on that confusion to sell their products.

But the sugar alcohols do come with some benefits over full calorie sugar sweeteners since they lower caloric intake, decrease the glycemic response (how rapidly a food increases the blood glucose level) and decrease dental cavities.

Some dentists and dental hygienists recommend chewing gum containing sugar alcohols after meals, especially if you cannot brush your teeth right after a meal. Or suck on a sugar-alcohol containing mint. The decay-inducing bacteria ingest the sugar alcohol but cannot digest it. The sugar alcohol attracts water causing the bacteria to swell up and die.

But will the sugar alcohols have the same effect on the good bacteria in your gut? I have not seen any research that answers that question. So, currently I recommend using sugar alcohols sparingly.

Fruits and vegetables naturally contain sugar alcohols, but they are probably ingested the most in “sugar-free” and reduced-sugar foods.

Some sugar alcohols are only 25% as sweet as table sugar (sucrose) but can be up to 100% as sweet. Xylitol is the one most commonly used in gums and mints. Others are used in other processed food.

Here’s a table from detailing the sugar alcohols:

Sugar Alcohol


Sweetness Compared to Sucrose




50% to 70%

Sugar-free hard and soft candies, chewing gum, flavored jam and jelly spreads, frozen foods, and baked goods



50% to 70%

Chewing gum, hard and soft candies, flavored jam and jelly spreads, confections, and frostings




Chewing gum, hard candies, and pharmaceutical products



60% to 80%

Confectionery and baked products, chewing gum, and some beverages



45% to 65%

Hard and soft candies, ice cream, toffee, fudge, lollipops, wafers, and chewing gum



30% to 40%

Chocolate, cookies and cakes, hard and soft candies, and frozen dairy desserts

Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH)


25% to 50%

Sugar-free foods and candies, and low-calorie foods




Sugar-free chocolate, hard candies, chewing gum, baked goods, and ice cream


Side Effects of sugar alcohols:

Because people cannot fully digest and absorb these sweeteners folks may experience abdominal  gas and diarrhea if they ingest too much. And they do still have calories. So if you eat any sugar alcohols keep them to a minimal amount.

Another big precaution about sugar alcohols:

Your liver rapidly converts sorbitol (in those “sugar-free” candies and confections) to fructose. And now we have another problem. Overwhelming the liver with fructose can silently lead to non-alcoholic liver disease that causes cirrhosis (scarring) of the liver until it’s too late to salvage the liver.

That’s the next sweetener problem that we will explore.

So, let’s remember:

  • “Sugar Free” does not necessarily mean sweetener-free nor calorie-free.
  • Get knowledge and get wise so you won’t be duped.
  • We need to change our way of thinking about sweets. There are no substitutes that are totally healthy.

Let’s get over our sweet addictions and enjoy healthy food and enjoy vibrant living.


Dr. Jo

About Dr. Jo

Dr. JoDr. Jo delights in sharing the message of health. She believes disease is optional if you know how to take care of yourself. And she’s a great coach to help you reverse or prevent disease.

So she writes this blog to keep you up to date with information that may undermine your health if you are not aware of it. She also provides tips on healthy living, how to reverse degenerative diseases, delicious recipes, and ways to enjoyably change your habits to healthy ones.

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3 Comments On “Sugar Alcohols”

Diane Jewell

Diane Jewell

28 September 2011

Another great newsletter, my friend! Thanks so much, Jo! Love you…Diane

Thanks Diane – I appreciate the encouragement. Dr. Jo

Joyce Plummer

Joyce Plummer

29 September 2011

The timing of this subject is so appropriate! We have weaned ourselves off sugar and now find it hard to find anything sweet that doesn’t make us feel “sick”. Can’t stand anything “sugar free.” What’s going on here. My brain tells me I shoud no longer want anything sweet, but I do! Am I still addicted?

Dr Jo

Dr Jo

4 October 2011

Seems like that sweet tooth does stay with us. Sometimes just a little bite of something sweet satisfies it without sending our blood sugar levels too high.
As to addiction – you’re probably over that.

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