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What Is Sugar Alcohol?

Allison Boelcke
Allison Boelcke

Sugar alcohol is a type of carbohydrate that is typically used as a sweetener for foods. It does not actually contain sugar or alcohol, but derives its name from the fact that the substance shares similar chemical properties with both sugar and alcohol.

One of the most common uses of sugar alcohol is as an additive for commercial products. It is typically added to processed food items like fruit spreads, ice cream, baked goods, and candy. Toiletry manufactures often rely on the substance to add a more pleasant taste to oral hygiene products like breath mints, mouthwash, and toothpaste. Some over the counter oral medications, such as cough syrup or sore throat remedies, use the sweetener to impart a more palatable taste.

Sugar alcohol can be used to sweeten sugar-free candies.
Sugar alcohol can be used to sweeten sugar-free candies.

Although sugar alcohol adds a sweet taste that is similar to sugar, it usually is lower in calories. It may be used by people following a low-sugar diet or those with diabetes who cannot safely consume sugar. Regular sugar can interact with bacteria in the mouth, wear away at tooth enamel, and result in tooth decay. This sweetener does not contribute to tooth decay, so it can safely be used in oral hygiene products to improve their flavors.

Sorbitol, a sugar alcohol.
Sorbitol, a sugar alcohol.

Manufacturers may choose to use these sweeteners as the sweetening agents in their processed food products, since it acts as a preservative to maintain the quality of products and increase their shelf lives. Unlike regular sugar, sugar alcohol does not soak up moisture and can be used to maintain the texture of baked goods that may otherwise become soggy or sticky over time, especially baked goods or candies. The substance is also not as susceptible to bacteria or fungus growth as sugar, so products can remain fresh and edible for a longer period of time.

Sugar alcohol is sometimes used to add a more pleasant taste to products such as mouthwash.
Sugar alcohol is sometimes used to add a more pleasant taste to products such as mouthwash.

The sweetener can potentially cause side effects when consumed. The chemical properties of the substance can irritate the gastrointestinal system and result in bloating, gas, or diarrhea. The side effects typically only occur if large quantities are ingested within a short time frame.

Since sugar alcohol is used as a sweetening agent, it can be confused with artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and saccharin. One of the main differences between the products is that sugar alcohols are naturally occurring substances while artificial sweeteners are man-made. Sugar alcohols also contain carbohydrates, while artificial sweeteners do not. The two products can be used interchangeably, although some people may have personal preferences for dietary reasons. For example, people who prefer natural products may choose sugar alcohols, while those on low-carbohydrate diets may opt for artificial sweeteners instead.

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Discussion Comments


@MikeMason-- I don't believe that sugar alcohols are as healthy as people claim and I'm basing this on my personal experience.

I have diabetes and many sugar-free food products for diabetics contain sugar alcohols in them. The bad part is that they label these products as "sugar free" so you think that it's okay to have it.

Yes, it's technically "sugar-free" but in reality, sugar alcohols are carbohydrates and depending on how much you eat and how much of it gets metabolized, it will increase blood sugar.

One day, I bought sugar-free pound cake and I had a little more than I should have because I was just so excited that I could have it. An hour later, my blood sugar shot through the roof and I felt sick for the rest of the day. So sugar alcohols are not safe for diabetics. Maybe if they're consumed in very little amounts, but it can be hard to keep track of how much sugar alcohol you have eaten and it's impossible to know how much of it will get metabolized.


@MikeMason-- It's safe, and sourced from real food (corn starch, sugar beets, etc), so it's a lot healthier than using artificial sweeteners.

The only single concern that comes with them is gastrointestinal side effects like the article said. But that's why FDA requires any product with more than a certain amount of sugar alcohol to label it as "excessive consumption might have a laxative effect."


Recently, I started noticing "xylitol"-- a sugar alcohol-- in ingredients lists of foods I purchase and was wondering what it was. I understand that this product has advantages to it, like being lower in calories and maintaining shelf life of foods for longer, but how safe is it exactly?

What is FDA's stand about this ingredient? I'm sure it has been approved by the FDA, but did they do extensive research about it? Do we know if it might have any long-term effects?

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    • Sugar alcohol can be used to sweeten sugar-free candies.
      By: Bert Folsom
      Sugar alcohol can be used to sweeten sugar-free candies.
    • Sorbitol, a sugar alcohol.
      By: Jonathan Vasata
      Sorbitol, a sugar alcohol.
    • Sugar alcohol is sometimes used to add a more pleasant taste to products such as mouthwash.
      By: ijacky
      Sugar alcohol is sometimes used to add a more pleasant taste to products such as mouthwash.