Sugar Alcohols

Beware of Sugar Alcohols
Those of us looking to limit carbs have, at some time or another, been lulled into the hype of sugar alcohols. We’ve seen the “3 Net Carbs” in big letters on the front of the packaging and bought the cheaper protein bar instead of the more expensive one with more net carbs. I’m here to ‘save you’ from falling into that trap again.

What’s a Sugar Alcohol
It is a sugar that has been somehow chemically modified into an alcohol. Most sugar alcohols aren’t as sweet as sucrose (table sugar), but have fewer calories per gram. They are used widely as thickeners and sweeteners (most every protein bar has some sugar alcohols). Most are not fully absorbed and therefore have less effect on blood sugar than sucrose.

That Sounds Good – What’s the Trap?
While most of the sugar alcohols have less effect, the more common ones are up to 50% to 75% metabolically active. So while they are treated by the body as sugar, the food companies subtract them out of the net carbs and that “3 Net Carb” protein bar may actually have 10 grams of TRUE Net Carbs. So you think you are keeping within your carb range and are actually completely blowing it.

But Doc, you recommend bars with sugar alcohols. What’s up with that?
The bars I recommend have erythritol as their sugar alcohol. Erythritol is unique in that it is completely absorbed (doesn’t give you bloating or diarrhea) and excreted by kidney unchanged (not treated like sugar) so it contributes NO calories even though it is very sweet. While most sugar alcohols are made by a Raney Nickel hydrogenation process, Erythritol is fermented from glucose and sucrose i.e. a natural process (think of it as the wine of non-nutritive sweeteners).

What Should I Look for in the Food Label?
Here’s a list of sugar alcohols you may find in a food label. Again, if it’s anything other than erythritol, it should not be completely subtracted out of the net carb equation. Subtracting half of the sugar alcohol is not a bad compromise if you do happen upon one and want to keep track of your net carbs.

  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol
  • Erythritol
  • Isomalt
  • Lactitol
  • Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
  • Maltitol
  • Mannitol

Bottom Line
If you are trying to watch your carbs and use products with sugar alcohols, the best choice is erythritol (naturally made and not metabolically active). Don’t buy into the hyper of the big “3 Net Carbs” printed on the front of a package. Look to see what sugar alcohol is in it and do your own math. Net Carbs = Total Carbs – Fiber – 1/2 Non-Erythritol Sugar Alcohols – erythritol.

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