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Sugar Alcohols: Friend or Foe in Obesity Treatment?

Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates and their chemical structure resembles both a sugar molecule and an alcohol molecule (not the alcohol found in alcoholic beverages).

Many people do not realize that sugar alcohols are found naturally in small amounts of a variety of vegetables and fruits.  For example, pineapples, olives, asparagus and sweet potatoes all contain mannitol, while blackberries, raspberries, apples and pears all contain sorbitol naturally.

Sugar alcohols can also be commercially produced (see Table 1).  Commercially produced sugar alcohols are added to sweeten foods without the caloric hit that sugar would provide.  As a sugar substitute, they provide fewer calories than regular sugar. Sugar alcohols are beneficial in foods intended for persons living with diabetes or being treated for obesity. This is because sugar alcohols are converted to glucose more slowly, require little or no insulin to be metabolized and do not cause sudden increases in blood sugar.

Table 1:  Commercially Produced Sugar Alcohols¹ ²

Mannitol Mannitol is extracted from seaweed for use in food manufacturing.  Mannitol has 50-70 % of the relative sweetness of sugar, which means more must be used to equal the sweetness of sugar.
Sorbitol Sorbitol is manufactured from corn syrup.  Sorbitol has 50-60% of the relative sweetness of sugar which means twice as much must be used to deliver a similar amount of sweetness to a product.
Xylitol Xylitol is also referred to as “wood sugar” as it naturally occurs in corncobs, fruit, vegetables, cereals, and mushrooms. Commercial manufacturing extracts xylitol from these sources which can be an expensive process.  Xylitol has the same relative sweetness as sugar and is commonly used in chewing gum.
Lactitol Lactitol has about 30-40% of the relative sweetness of sugar, however it’s taste, and solubility profile very much resemble sugar.  Lactitol is manufactured from whey, the lactose (milk sugar) rich by-product of cheese making and processed dairy foods.  Lactitol is commonly used in sugar-free ice creams, chocolates, candies, baked goods and sugar-reduced preserves and chewing gums.
Isomalt Isomalt has 45-65% of the relative sweetness of sugar and does not tend to lose its sweetness or break down during the heating process.  Isomalt is manufactured from sugar.  The original glucose-fructose bond remains intact; however, the fructose portion of the sugar molecule is converted into equal amounts of sorbitol and mannitol.  The glucose portion is unchanged.  Thus, isomalt is a mixture, of two disaccharides, glucose-sorbitol and glucose-mannitol.  Isomalt absorbs little water, so it is often used in hard candies, toffee, cough drops and lollipops.
Maltitol Maltitol is 75-90% of the relative sweetness of sugar.  Maltitol is made by adding hydrogen to maltose (malt sugar), the glucose-glucose disaccharide derived from cornstarch.  It is commonly used in sugar-free hard candies, chewing gum, chocolate-flavored desserts, baked goods and ice cream because it gives a creamy texture to foods.
Erythritol Erythritol is 70% of the relative sweetness of sugar.  Erythritol is one of the newer sugar alcohols to be manufactured from cornstarch.  It provides a mild cooling effect in the mouth and is used in baked goods, chewing gum and some beverages.
Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates (HSH) HSH is a group of polyols (another name for sugar alcohols) products.  Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates are 20-50% of the relative sweetness of sugar.  Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates can be used in the same types of foods that use the other common sugar alcohols.  HSH products are typically blended with other sweeteners, both natural (i.e. sucrose) and commercially made sweeteners.

Sugar alcohols are regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) as food additives and are generally recognized as safe (GRAS.)

The PROS: 

  • They provide sweetness with fewer calories.
  • They add bulk and texture to products.
  • Some produce a cooling sensation in the mouth.
  • They do not react with plaque bacteria in the mouth, so they do not cause dental cavities.
  • They do not affect blood sugar levels the same as sugar.

The CONS: 

  • Sugar alcohols are slowly and incompletely absorbed and may contribute to gastrointestinal upset; because they are not fully absorbed, gut bacteria ferment sugar alcohols in the large intestine producing gas, bloating and diarrhea in some individuals.
  • Products containing 50 grams or more of sorbitol or 20 grams or more of mannitol must carry the warning statement “excessive consumption may have a laxative effect.”
  • HealthWise uses a combination of nutritive and non-nutritive sweeteners including sugar alcohols.  Sugar alcohols are found only in certain products.  The content ranges from <1 to 5 grams per product.
Sugar Alcohol HealthWise Products Containing
Sorbitol None
Mannitol None
Sorbitol None
Xylitol None
Lactitol None
Isomalt None
Maltitol Caramel Crunch Layer Bar (253), Chocolate Mint Layer Bar (254), Rockie Road Layer Bar (258), Caramel Nut Layer Bar (259), Strawberry Cheesecake Layer Bar (260), PB & Jelly Layer Bar (261)
Erythritol None
Hydrogenated Starch Hydrolysates (HSH) None


  1. Sugar Alcohols;
  2. Eat Any Sugar Alcohol Lately? Yale-New Haven Hospital;
  3. What are Sugar Alcohols and How Do They Work? The Sugar Association;