Sugar alcohols have a rather peculiar name, because they're not quite sugar, and they're definitely not alcohol, or at least not the ethanol containing kind that can get us drunk. What they actually are is naturally occurring carbohydrates derived from sugars, and they are often used in food as a substitute for added sugar or artificial sweeteners.

However, sugar alcohols tend to be less sweet than sugar (while artificial sweeteners and stevia are more sweet) and to contain between 1.5 and three calories per gram as compared to sugar's 4 calories per gram and artificial sugars' zero.

They do have the benefit of being natural rather than manmade, but since they do have calories, you may significantly underestimate your overall intake if you're eating a lot of them without taking it into account.

Sugar alcohols also have a far lower glycemic index than sugar, ranging from 0, (erythritol and mannitol) to 36 (maltitol). They thus are absorbed by the body more slowly than sugar and require far less insulin to metabolize. Therefore, they shouldn't cause a blood sugar spike unless you overdo it and binge on them, but there are other reasons you'd regret it if you do.

Sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed and metabolized by the body, meaning that they must be fermented by bacteria in the large intestine. Unfortunately, this can often lead to gas, bloating, cramping, loose stools, and outright diarrhea.

Thus, you should probably avoid sugar alcohols if you have irritable bowel syndrome or any other condition that may make you unusually sensitive to these effects, which are strong enough that some types of sugar alcohols are occasionally prescribed as laxatives.

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However, it's not all bad news. One big advantage of sugar alcohols over sugar is that they don't cause cavities, and in fact can be good for your teeth. Since the bad bacteria in your mouth cannot process sugar alcohols, sugar alcohol ends up inhibiting this bad bacteria's growth.

The effects of xylitol on oral health are the most studied, to the point that it is now officially recommended by most dentists. Plus, other sugar alcohols like erythritol have been tentatively shown to have similar or even superior effects.

Xylitol has also been found in rat studies to be an effective prebiotic, which means it can feed healthy gut bacteria. This is especially striking because artificial sweeteners tend to do the opposite! Other rat studies indicate that xylitol may play a role in preventing osteoperosis and increasing collagen production, so no need to feel guilty about that sugar-free gum.

If you're looking for a sugar alcohol or "polyol," watch for that "ol" suffix, though though a few, like isomalt, are exceptions to that rule. If you want to know more about individual sugar alcohols, check out the following round-up!

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1. Sorbitol

Sorbitol has 2.6 calories per gram (sugar has 4) and is 50 to 70 percent less sweet than sugar. It is found naturally in many fruits and vegetables, apples, apricots, avocados, cherries, peaches and plums, but is usually manufactured from corn syrup.

2. Xylitol

Xylitol contains 2.4 calories per gram and is only 5 percent less sweet than sugar (while containing 40 percent fewer calories!) It can be made from birch wood, corncobs, and sugar cane stalks, and can be found naturally in many fruits and vegetables and in some grains.

Most healthy adults can tolerate between 50 to 70 grams per day without experiencing gastrointestinal side effects, though it's also possible to build up a tolerance to these effects if you consume high amounts of xylitol regularly, though we still don't really recommend it!    

It tends to be used in chewing gum, breath mints, diet soda, jams and jellies, gumdrops, hard candies, chocolate ice cream and cookies, as well as some non-food products like toothpastes, mouthwash, multivitamins, and cough syrups.

Note also that xylitol has one effect that's unique among sugar alcohols and that you should definitely be aware of. It can be extremely toxic to dogs, so keep your xylitol flavored goodies far away from Fido!!

3. Maltitol

Maltitol has 2.1 calories per gram and is about 75 percent as sweet as sugar. It can be made from maltose extracted from wheat, tapicoca, or corn. It tends to be used in sugar-free hard candies, chewing gum, chocolate flavored desserts, baked goods and ice cream, where it can help add a creamy flavor. To avoid tummy troubles, stay under 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) per day.

4. Mannitol

Mannitol has 1.6 calories per gram and is between 50 and 80 percent as sweet and sugar. It can be found naturally in plants like strawberries, mushrooms, onions, pineapples, olives, onions, asparagus,, sweet potatoes and carrots. It can be manufactured from cornstarch or seaweed, and may be more likely than some other sugar alcohols to cause bloating and diarrhea because it tends to stay for a long time in the intestines.

Mannitol is also occasionally used as a medication for cases of kidney failure, glaucoma, or acute trauma. It is often found in hard candies, dried fruits, chewing gums, and chewable tablets, and can have a strong cooling effect depending on how it is prepared.

5. Lactitol

Lactitol has about 2 calories per gram and is between 30-40 percent as sweet as sugar. Since it is made from whey, it gets its name from milk, not laxatives, though, like most of its sugar-alcohol comrades, lactitol can indeed have a laxative effect. To avoid bloating and diarrhea, stay under 20 grams a day.

Lactitol has a similar taste to sugar and works similarly in cooking, so it is often found in sugar-free or sugar-reduced frozen desserts, chocolates, hard and soft candies, baked goods, preserves, and chewing gums.

6. Isomalt

Isomalt has about 2 calories per gram is derived from the sugar found in beets. It is between 45 and 65 percent as sweet as sugar, and you should stop at 50 grams (1.76 ounces) per day if you don't want to invite intestinal issues.

Isomalt can be found in many of the usual sugar-free suspects, (hard candies, toffee, cough drops, wafers, fudge, cereals, fruit spreads, jams and preserves) but you may also encounter it in frozen and smoked fish!

7. Erythritol

Erythritol contains nearly 0 calories and is 60 to 80 percent as sweet as sugar. You may encounter in naturally in pears, soy sauce, and watermelon, but the erythritol used in processed food is usually created when yeast ferments glucose from corn or wheat starch.

Erythritol is less likely to cause diarrhea than some other sugar alcohols because more of it is absorbed in your bloodstream, meaning not much of it makes it down to the colon where it might cause trouble. However, you should still avoid eating more than 50 grams of it at a time.

8. Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates

Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates have about 3 calories per gram and can be anywhere from 20 to 90 percent as sweet as sugar. They are made from mixing various sugar alcohols found in starches, and you'll usually find them in confections, baked goods and mouthwashes.

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This array of sugar alcohols could be a great diet aid, as long as you use them intelligently and with moderation. However, don't take this endorsement of one ingredient as a free pass on sugar-free food; you still need to be wary of excess fat and calories in these confections, or artificial sugar lurking alongside sugar alcohols on the ingredient list!!

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