Q: I have type 2 diabetes and try to limit the simple sugars in my diet.
I noticed that a sugar-free product I purchased contained sugar alcohols in the ingredients. What are sugar alcohols?
A: Sugar alcohols are used in food products to add sweetness, usually in sugar-free candies, chewing gum, and desserts. They do not contain alcohol like alcoholic beverages; the alcohol actually refers to its chemical structure. Sugar alcohols are a form of naturally occurring sugar, but they differ from traditional sugar in many ways. For one, sugar alcohols are absorbed more slowly and incompletely in the body, requiring little or no insulin for uptake and metabolism. Due to their different absorptive structure, sugar alcohols can cause diarrhea, bloating, or gas in some consumers, especially if used in excess.
Sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol are three commonly used sugar alcohols. Sorbitol and mannitol aren't as sweet as traditional table sugar, whereas xylitol has the same sweetness as table sugar. Besides adding sweetness, sugar alcohols also add texture, help keep the food moist and prevent browning when the food is heated.
Many people think that foods with sugar alcohols are free foods, but that is not true. They still contain calories. They provide about two-thirds the calories of regular sugar – 2.6 calories versus 4 calories per gram. This makes them an ideal substitution for sugar in foods, especially for persons with diabetes and those trying to control calories. Even though they have fewer calories and fewer carbohydrates, you cannot eat unlimited amounts. Usually they are used as a substitute for foods that normally don't provide much nutritional value, such as a snack or dessert-type food. Portion control is key. These foods still contain calories, and they can add up quickly, and so can the sugar content. Consuming these foods in moderate portions, just like foods that contain traditional sugar, is still the key to healthful eating.
For more information on a heart-healthy diet plan, please contact the Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation Program at 216.444-9353 (or toll-free at 800/223-2273, extension 49353) and we can schedule a nutrition consultation - or - use our Remote Cardiac Nutrition Counseling Services.