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Nutrition Column

Sugar alcohols may be called “non-impact” but they do impact your body and health

Technically not a carbohydrate or alcohol, sugar alcohols are partially digested, contain calories, and often converted into fat.

Sugar alcohols, or polyols,are neither sugars nor alcohols. They are carbohydrates with a chemical structure that partially resembles sugar and partially resembles alcohol (without the ethanol like alcoholic beverages). Sugar alcohols occur naturally in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but are mostly commercially produced from other carbohydrates such as sucrose, glucose, and starch.

Sugar alcohols are slowly and incompletely absorbed from the small intestine into the blood. Once absorbed they are metabolized (often into fats in the liver) or used for energy. Unlike most carbohydrates they require little insulin for their metabolism and hence have been termed non-impact carbs by food manufacturers since they have little or no impact on blood glucose or insulin levels.

Sugar alcohols like maltitol, mannitol, xylitol, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates are only partially digested and absorbed and metabolized by the body and consequently contribute fewer calories. Their caloric content ranges from 1.5 to 3.0 calories per gram compared to 4.0 calories per gram for carbohydrates.

While containing about half the calories of sugar, most are approximately half as sweet and therefore even though the label will read “low-carb” or “no impact carbs” the food or serving will yield a similar caloric content as one containing sugar. While low in carb and only partially digestible they still contain calories - often a lot for the little portion. While most sugar alcohols are half as sweet as sucrose; maltitol and xylitol are exceptions being about as sweet as sucrose.

Sugar alcohols are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as either GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) or approved food additives. And while limits on intake are recommended due to their laxative effect, currently the Food and Drug Administration nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not defined terms used by manufacturers on products containing food alcohols such as “low carb”, “net carb”, and “non-impact carb” among others.

Apparently the FDA is aware of the low-carb labeling question and is drafting guidelines for manufacturers to use - limiting the abuse and misuse of such terms. Since sugar alcohols are only found in processed foods you can avoid them, and the labeling controversy, by eating the best source of carbohydrates: fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Written by Dr. Sternlicht for on 01.11.06