Reducing the intake of added sugar is crucial to avoid health risks such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease. However, be wary of products marketed as low sugar, no sugar or completely free from it.
Rather than sugar, several products use well-known low-calorie sweeteners like aspartame or sucralose. Another ingredient that you may encounter while scanning labels is sugar alcohol, which is present in various items including chewing gum, beverages, ice cream and sugary treats but without the added calories of natural sugars. So what makes these different types of sweeteners healthier options?
Is there any significant difference in health benefits between low-calorie or no-calorie sweeteners and natural sugar?
The assortment of low and zero-calorie sweeteners, commonly referred to as sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners, includes acesulfame-K, saccharin, sucralose, neotame and advantame. These alternatives boast a superior level of sweetness per gram compared to naturally occurring sugars.
To date, research has yielded varied results regarding the impact of low-calorie sweetener drinks. Nevertheless, some observational studies have linked these beverages with an increased risk for diabetes and weight gain.
Can you identify sugar alcohols and what defines them?
Dr. Hu states that sugar alcohols are commonly mislabeled as they do not actually contain either sugar or alcohol in them. These substances, derived from fruits and vegetables but often produced artificially for commercial use, instead belong to the carbohydrate category.
The names of several sugar alcohols often end with “-ol” and can be found on ingredient lists. These include sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, mannitol, erythritol and maltitol.
Do sugar alcohols have superior health benefits compared to other sweeteners, including natural forms of sugar?
Let’s examine the advantages and disadvantages.
Sugar alcohols have positive benefits.
Sugar alcohols occupy the desirable middle ground between natural sugar and low-calorie sweeteners by providing a moderate level of sweetness without contributing excessive calories. They are less sugary than artificial sweeteners but have fewer calories compared to regular sugar.
Dr. Hu explains that compared to natural sugar, sugar alcohols are only 40% to 80% as sweet but artificial sweeteners such as aspartame pack a whopping 200 times more sweetness. Additionally, these alternatives have fewer calories ranging from about 25% to up to around the three-quarters of typical table granulated sugar per gram measurement unit.”
Sugar alcohols have the additional benefit of being slowly digested in the gut, resulting in only partial absorption of their total carbohydrates. Dr. Hu notes that this property prevents blood sugar and insulin levels from rapidly rising as they would with regular sugar consumption, rendering them a practical alternative to sweeteners for individuals living with diabetes.
Sugar alcohols have a downside.
Sugar alcohols can cause gastrointestinal (GI) issues, including abdominal pain, diarrhea or loose stools if consumed in excessive amounts.
Due to their slow digestion, sugar alcohols provide ample time for gut bacteria to feed on them. This can result in fermentation leading to the production of excess gas. Moreover, their delayed breakdown process leads to water retention in the colon and results in a laxative effect.
Dr. Hu explains that various aspects such as body weight, health conditions, and the quantity and types of sugar alcohols play a significant role in people’s tolerance towards them. Furthermore, differences in digestion and metabolism rates along with gut microbiome composition can also affect one’s response to these sweeteners. Therefore, it is advised to slowly incorporate sugar alcohols into your diet while monitoring their effects on the body over time.
To alleviate gastrointestinal issues caused by sugar alcohols, Dr. Hu recommends reducing consumption of foods and beverages containing them. “Pay attention to food labels,” he advises, as these sweeteners are often present in low-carb or sugar-free products. Furthermore, since the effects can vary among different types of sugar alcohols, pinpointing which ones trigger symptoms may be helpful for managing their impact on one’s digestion.
Are there any health risks associated with consuming sugar alcohols?
The potential adverse health effects of sugar alcohol on a long-term basis are yet to be fully investigated. In 2023, an observation-based research discovered that the usage of erythritol as a supplementary sweetener can lead to incidents related to cardiovascular disorders such as heart attacks and strokes among individuals having existing heart diseases or risk factors like hypertension and diabetes. Nevertheless, these findings have not been validated by further studies conducted so far.
According to Dr. Hu, sugar alcohols present a healthier substitute for sugar as they possess lesser calories and lead to lower glycemic response impacting blood glucose levels. However, individuals with sensitive digestive systems should be cautious of their potential downsides and consume them moderately alongside an overall healthy dietary regimen.