Is Maltitol a Safe Sugar Substitute?

Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD on May 25, 2016Written by Diana Wells on May 25, 2016
maltitol

What is maltitol?

Maltitol is a sugar alcohol. Sugar alcohols are found naturally in some fruits and vegetables. They’re also considered carbohydrates.

Sugar alcohols are typically manufactured rather than being used in their natural form. They’re sweet, but not quite as sweet as sugar, and have almost half the calories. They are usually used in baked goods, candy, and other sweet items. They can also be found in some medications. Besides adding sweetness in place of sugar, maltitol and other sugar alcohols help keep food moist, and help prevent browning.

When you’re checking labels, be aware that maltitol may also be listed as sorbitol or xylitol. It’s sometimes even listed just as sugar alcohol, since it falls under this category.

Benefits of maltitol

Maltitol allows you to get a sweetness that is close to that of sugar, but with not as many calories. For this reason, it can help with weight loss.

It also doesn’t have the unpleasant aftertaste that other sugar substitutes tend to have. This can help you to stick to a lower calorie diet if you are trying to lose weight or manage diabetes.

Another benefit is that maltitol, and other sugar alcohols, don’t cause cavities or tooth decay like sugar and other sweeteners do. This is one reason they are sometimes used in gum, mouthwash, and toothpaste.

Precautions

Maltitol is considered a safe alternative to sugar, but there are some precautions you should be aware of.

Maltitol is found in many sugar-free products, but people with diabetes should remember that it’s a carbohydrate. This means that it still has a glycemic index. While not as high as sugar, it still has an effect on blood glucose. It’s important to note that your body doesn’t absorb as much sugar alcohol as sugar. So it can still be used as an effective alternative for people with diabetes. They just need to monitor their intake of it and read labels.

After eating maltitol, some people experience stomach pains and gas. It also can act similarly to a laxative and cause diarrhea. The severity of these side effects depends on how much of it you eat and how your body reacts to it.

There aren’t any other major health concerns with using maltitol or other sugar alcohols.

Alternatives to maltitol

Maltitol and sugar alcohols are generally used as an ingredient. They’re not normally used alone. Because of this, there are some easy alternatives you can use in your cooking and baking if you experience gas and stomach pains with maltitol.

These alternatives will also still help when you need to limit your sugar intake for either weight loss or diabetes.

Stevia

Stevia is considered a novel sweetener because it’s a combination of other kinds of sweeteners. It doesn’t really fit into any other category. The stevia plant grows in South America. It’s 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar, and doesn’t contain calories.

In contrast to sugar and other sweeteners, stevia does contain some nutrients, including:

  • potassium
  • zinc
  • magnesium
  • vitamin B-3

The stevia plant is also a source of fiber and iron. It’s currently only refined stevia that is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Erythritol

This is also a sugar alcohol. However, unlike maltitol, it doesn’t have a glycemic index and has fewer calories. It also doesn’t usually cause stomach pains or gas. Since it’s still a sugar alcohol, it doesn’t have the unpleasant aftertaste of artificial sweeteners.

Agave and other natural sweeteners

Agave nectar is considered a natural sweetener, but it can still be processed to some degree. It is one of the highest sources of refined fructose — more than table sugar. Table sugar contains about 50 percent refined fructose. Refined fructose consumption is associated with obesity, fatty liver disease, and diabetes. Honey, maple syrup, and molasses are also natural sweeteners, and they all contain varying amounts of refined fructose. Most of these, including honey, are very similar to sugar, including their calorie content. They should be used primarily for their taste and not to save on calories.

Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners are manufactured, and usually much sweeter than sugar. They are very low or no calorie substitutes for sugar, which is great for dieters. They also usually don’t affect blood sugar levels, which makes them beneficial for those with diabetes. However, recent research shows that these sweeteners impact gut bacteria and can indirectly affect insulin sensitivity and blood sugar levels over time.

While some artificial sweeteners contain a warning label that they may be hazardous to your health, most health agencies agree that there are not enough studies to support that. They are approved as being safe to consume by the FDA.

The takeaway

Many people are trying to reduce their sugar intake, for reasons such as weight loss and diabetes. Maltitol and other sugar alcohols can be appropriate alternatives.

But it’s important that you discuss eating items containing maltitol with your doctor and dietitian, if you have diabetes. They’ll be able to determine if it’s the best sugar alternative for you. They can also help you figure out the best amount to consume, so that you avoid the unpleasant side effects.

The best thing is to be informed and read labels. Don’t assume that when a product says sugar-free that it’s calorie-free. Depending on the type of sweetener used, it may still have calories and a glycemic index that will affect your weight loss goals or conditions like diabetes.

Cooking at home is one of the best options if you want to have more control over your sweeteners, calorie intake, and blood glucose levels. There are plenty of great recipes you can make yourself. You can use the sugar alternatives the recipes suggest or experiment by using your favorites.

Keep in mind when experimenting with sweeteners that they each have a different level of sweetness. It may take a couple of tries to get the flavor to your liking.

Dessert recipes using sugar substitutes

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