But despite these facts, that doesn’t seem to slow down our sweet tooth one bit. So, in an effort to give us the best of both worlds, food manufacturers have done what they always do: substitute the harmful substances in their products with a (hopefully) healthier alternative – and, while attempting to preserve the taste we know and love.
In the case of sugar, it’s being replaced by sugar alcohols. But what exactly are these substitutes, and are they really better for you? Let’s start with the former…
Sugar alcohols (also known as polyols) are, essentially, part sugar and part alcohol. They occur naturally in plants and common examples include xylitol, maltilol, and sorbitol. They’re used in the place of sugar because, like the former they’re sweet, but in contrast, your intestines cannot readily absorb them. As such, when you eat foods containing sugar alcohols, the caloric impact won’t be as great, and hence, it will be less fattening. Furthermore, they don’t cause as much of an insulin spike (i.e. sugar’s main mediator of its detrimental effects on your body).
Given that, one could assume that sugar alcohols are indeed better than sugar. After all: fewer calories absorbed, less of an insulin spike, and not much of a compromise when it comes to taste. Unfortunately, things aren’t that clear-cut.
For one, they’re not as sweet as sugar. Therefore, in order to preserve the flavor of a food, more of them have to be used. So, even though they cause less of an insulin spike, the fact that you’re ingesting more of them (as opposed to smaller amounts of sugar) could offset this benefit. Maltilol is a prime example of this. It causes 75% of the blood sugar impact as sucrose (i.e. table sugar) but is only 75% as sweet. In the end, it all evens out.
Then there’s another thing to consider: these are alcohols but not the kind that will get you drunk. However, they can ferment in your intestines leading to bloating, gas, and diarrhea. And for some people these reactions can be very severe so use with caution. It’s better to experiment slowly (and near a toilet) the first few times around.
So in the end, the verdict is still out in regards to sugar alcohol vs. sugar. There are definitely pros and cons of eating one over the other. Furthermore, this will depend on your general state of health. For example, if you’re a diabetic you might be better off consuming low-GI sugar alcohol (e.g. xylitol) over sucrose.
Nevertheless, the best strategy – in my opinion – is to limit both as much as possible. Sure, indulge from time to time but learn to satisfy your daily sweet cravings with fruit. Of course, too much of that isn’t good either, but we’ll save that story for another day.