Many food labels bear the terms “sugar-free” or “no-sugar added.” If you are watching your sugar intake, these terms can help you make selections, but might not paint the full picture as to how a food might affect your blood sugar levels or affect your waistline through calories. Two of the common sweeteners in foods such as cookies, cakes, pies and pudding are either sugar or sugar alcohols. Knowing the facts about each can help you decide what sweetener is best for you.
Table sugar is known as sucrose. However, a number of sugar alcohols can be added to foods that are not as easy to recognize on an ingredient label, including erythritol, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol or xylitol. These sugar alcohols are forms of naturally occurring sugars whose chemical makeup varies slightly from actual sucrose. Sugar alcohols are derived from sugars typically found in fruits. Don’t let the word “alcohol” confuse you -- sugar alcohols do not contain alcohol in the traditional sense of the word, as in the alcohol you find in beer or wine. Instead, the word alcohol refers to its chemical structure.
Although sugar alcohols have fewer calories than sugar itself, sugar alcohols do still contain calories. One gram of sugar contains four calories, and a teaspoon of sugar contains about 4 grams of sugar, or 16 calories. This means the amount of sugar in one 12-ounce can of cola -- about 8 teaspoons -- adds about 130 calories to your intake. While a variety of sugar alcohols can be added to replace sugar, these sugar alcohols tend to have between 1.5 and 3 calories per gram.
Foods that contain sugar alcohols can be labeled "sugar-free” or “no sugar added” because sugar alcohols differ in how the body absorbs them. For example, the body does not absorb sugar alcohols very quickly. This means the sugar alcohols can pass through your body with minimal effect to your blood sugar levels. Little insulin is needed to absorb these alcohols. This can be advantageous if you have diabetes and are closely monitoring your blood sugar levels. Sugar, however, is absorbed more quickly in the body. When you eat a sugary food, your body uses insulin to introduce the sugar into your cells. This can cause your blood sugar levels to rise. When your cells use up the sugar, your blood sugar levels fall. One of the concerns with the absorption of sugar alcohols is that their incomplete absorption can cause diarrhea, gas and bloating if you consume too much of them.
Some sugar alcohols are not as sweet as table sugar. For example, sorbitol and mannitol -- two commonly added sugar alcohols -- are not as sweet as table sugar. However, xylitol is considered to taste as sweet as table sugar.
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This article reflects the views of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jillian Michaels or JillianMichaels.com.