Are Sugar Alcohols Safe?


Maltitol is aptly named with the prefix “mal” because it can cause some mal-content in your gut!

This is the last past in this series and then I think I’m done with sugar and substitutes for a while.

So are sugar alcohols just druken forms of sugar, one on vodka while anothers down the whiskey? Not really. That is utter silliness. So what are they? Well…..

They resemble sugar and have hydroxyl groups (1 part hydrogen 1 part oxygen) on them. In fact, maltitol has several hydroxyl groups on it. Generally they can’t be fermented by mouth bacteria and they are popular in gum for the reason of promoting dental health. If this sounds familiar it’s because, as we discussed in the last post, xylitol is very popular for dentists and gum makers alike. Xylitol is a sugar alcohol. I just decided to give it its own post. Don’t ask why because I couldn’t tell ya. They can be broken down in the colon though and can be problematic for people because of bloating, gas, discomfort etc. This is why some people who eat those diet bars can have gas after a while. I know for me they (sugar alcohols) are out of my diet in any significant quantity for that reason. Even some gum can set my stomach off. People with IBS and other gut problems would probably be wise to avoid these as they may exacerbate these conditions. So lets look a bit into each one.


This guy looks very similar to xylitol. It’s 60-70% as sweet as sugar. A good amount of it is actually absorbed and 90% is excreted in the urine. So about 10% is left in the colon. 1 Since not a lot of this one gets to the colon, it doesn’t cause as many GI problems as say xylitol or malitol. Erythritol has about 0.2 kcal/gram. None of them by the way are calorie free. It appears, at least in the short term to have no effect on glucose or insulin levels in diabetics. 2 Per my usual thoughts on stuff like this, use it sparingly, like anything else and if it causes any problems, don’t justify continued use because someone says it’s “healthy”.


Maltitol is 75-90% as sweet as sugar. It has about 2.7kcal/gram. This guy is much more likely to raise some ruckus in the colon so be careful when eating foods sweetened with it. Maltitol does raise insulin a little bit and blood sugar a little bit but they quickly return back to normal. 3 In the case of diabetics it might be a good idea to check levels of glucose just to see if there is a problem. Really it should be done for all sweeteners, artificial or not, if one chooses to use them.


Sorbitol is about half as sweet as sugar and has around 2.6kcal/gram. It has minimal impact on glucose and insulin concentrations. 4 From what I’ve read sorbitol doesn’t get metabolized by mouth bacteria and thus may be helpful in caries reduction. It’s also a great humectant which means it holds on to moisture well. This is probably why it’s used in many sweets that need to stay somewhat moist to be good. It can cause GI distress just like the rest. I know sometimes if I’ve chewed gum with sorbitol I get a little upset stomach. It’s nothing major, but I try to stay away from it if possible. GI upset…well it just sucks and I’d rather go without.

Hydrogenated Starch Hydrosylates (HSH)

HSH is kind of a mixture of different sugar alcohols. There isn’t one dominant substance. They are created by hydrolyzing starch and then hydrogenating the products. What results is HSH. Sometimes the hydrolyzing process creates sorbitol and sometimes it doesn’t reach completion and creates others. Bottom line is you have a mix of sugar alcohols. The rest of this paragraph would pretty read as the above paragraphs. So I’m not going to beat a dead horse.

Others you might see on a lable include mannitol, lactitol, and isomalt. Again more of the same.

Final Thoughts

I think the need to produce so many different types of sweeteners is a result of our craving for sweets. We want sweet food or we wouldn’t buy it. One of the things I learned about eating whole foods was that after a short period of time the true taste of the food started to come through and I started noticing subtle things I hadn’t noticed before. Apples taste really good and so do oranges. Different vegetables had flavors and textures that were wonderful to experience. I’ve had some clients who’ve said the same thing. One said she couldn’t believe how good apples were after ditching some of the things she was consuming before. Tasting food as it should be tasted is really cool.

If you don’t use artificial, sugar alcohols or just plain ol sugar, then I would suggest don’t start and just keep eating tasty food. If you use any of these and are having headaches, stomach or gut problems, neurologic problems or just any problem, try cutting it out for a month and see what happens. For diabetics check blood sugars might be a wise idea when using these as opposed to not using them. The studies and research is great at giving a broad general answer but not always so good at giving you a specific answer. I think the sugar alcohols are much better than the artificial sweeteners, but that doesn’t make them benign. And they make ice cream taste like crap. Truly an abomination!


1.Munro, I. C., et al. “Erythritol: an interpretive summary of biochemical, metabolic, toxicological and clinical data.” Food and chemical toxicology 36.12 (1998): 1139-1174.

2.Ishikawa, Masashi, et al. “Effects of oral administration of erythritol on patients with diabetes.” Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology 24.2 (1996): S303-S308.

3.Secchi, A., et al. “Effects of oral administration of maltitol on plasma glucose, plasma sorbitol, and serum insulin levels in man.” Klinische Wochenschrift 64.6 (1986): 265-269.

4.Macdonald, I., Anne Keyser, and Deborah Pacy. “Some effects, in man, of varying the load of glucose, sucrose, fructose, or sorbitol on various metabolites in blood.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 31.8 (1978): 1305-1311.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s