What Is Sugar Alcohol?

Medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RD, LD on July 3, 2017Written by Kathryn Watson on July 3, 2017


Sugar alcohols, or polyols, are a group of ingredients that are used in commercially available products. They’re derived from plant products — most commonly, genetically modified cornstarch.

Like cane sugar, sugar alcohol is used to sweeten the taste of things you eat and drink. Sugar alcohols come in a syrup or in a crystallized form, and they go by several different names on food product labels. Since Americans consume 22.3 teaspoons of added caloric sweeteners every day, sugar alcohols are an attractive option for those that need a sweet fix without the blood sugar spike.

Since sugar alcohol is “natural,” some products that contain it are advertised as having “no sugar added” or being “sugar-free.” But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some risks that come with consuming large amounts of sugar alcohol.

Pros and cons of sugar alcohol

Sugar alcohol side effects can vary according to the source of the ingredient and which kind you are consuming. These pros and cons to eating food with sugar alcohol are intended to be for general information purposes.

Pros of sugar alcohol:

  • Sugar alcohol doesn’t spike blood sugar, making it good for people with diabetes or prediabetes.
  • Sugar alcohol contains fewer calories than sucrose or other traditional sugars.
  • Sugar alcohol doesn’t promote tooth decay.

Cons of sugar alcohol:

  • Sugar alcohol is digested differently than some other sweeteners. This can lead to bloating or other digestive symptoms.
  • Sugar alcohols contain more carbohydrates than other sweeteners. This means excess consumption can still lead to weight gain.
  • Sugar alcohols are a natural laxative, so eating too much of them can lead to diarrhea.
  • Sugar alcohol interacts with gut bacteria and may interfere with the delicate balance of healthy flora.

Comparing sugar alcohol

Sugar alcohol vs. sugar

The major advantage of sugar alcohol over sugar is sugar alcohol’s effect on your blood sugar. Sugar alcohol takes longer for your body to digest, which keeps your blood sugar from spiking after you consume it. This is good news for people with medical conditions like diabetes who need to be careful with their blood sugar levels.

Sugar alcohol vs. sugar substitutes

Other sugar substitutes, such as saccharine, sucralose, aspartame, and stevia, don’t contain calories. One serving (2.3 grams) of sugar contains 9 calories, and one serving of polyols contains 2.6 calories. And since sugar alcohols aren’t as sweet as sugar, a greater amount of sugar alcohol is used to achieve the same level of sweetness. If you’re looking to cut calories, other sugar substitutes might be a better choice. However, artificial sugar substitutes may negatively alter gut bacteria and increase the risk of many different diseases.

Foods with sugar alcohol

Erythritol, mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol are four types of sugar alcohols that are commonly used in sugar-free gum and hard candies. Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH) is another name for sugar alcohol that is used in pastries and other baked goods. Ice cream, yogurt, sorbet, frosting, chocolate, and fruit jelly sometimes use sugar alcohol as a sweetener. Sugar alcohols are also used as “bulking agents,” or ingredients that soften stool or relieve constipation. This is due to their laxative properties.

Pharmaceutical products use them, too, to mask bitter tastes and make medicine easier to take. Cough drops, breath mints, mouthwash, and toothpaste may have some form of sugar alcohol in them.

Risks and complications of sugar alcohol

One of the biggest issues that some people have with sugar alcohols is their diuretic effect. One sugar alcohol ingredient, mannitol, is actually used as a standalone diuretic to help the body detoxify and get rid of water weight.

The other complaint is of diarrhea or intestinal issues from sugar alcohol intake. This occurs because the body cannot metabolize the polyols. Even though sugar alcohols are used to promote products that are “sugar-free” or have “no sugar added,” that doesn’t mean these ingredients are healthy for you. Too much sugar alcohol in your diet may lead to weight gain and digestion problems, just like regular sugar.

Real cane sugar (sucrose) is the most digestible of the sweetening ingredients. Your body is able to digest sucrose and convert it to energy without causing gastrointestinal distress. Side effects of too much sugar include skin breakouts, weight gain, and “sugar highs” that are followed by a lethargic “crash period.” Some researchers make the claim that sugar is highly addictive.


Sugar alcohol ingredients give people with unstable blood sugar an option to enjoy sweetened foods. But though sugar alcohols don’t have the same side effects as sugar, that doesn’t mean that they are risk-free. Always read the ingredients on the back of your food products to understand what’s really going in your body.

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