Understanding the "Sugar-Free" Myth

02.22.2012 / Blog Posts Health and Wellness

Occasionally, I would like to invite a guest blogger to join us in the WOW Nutrition Corner so this week I’d like to introduce my colleague, Christine Turpin RD, LDN, CSCS. Christine has assisted me with both the Redskins players as well as the University of Maryland Terrapin Football team. She is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach as well as a Sports Nutritionist and owner of Nourish2Perform, a personal training company that specializes in integrating both fitness and dietary coaching in one to maximize a client’s results.

- Jane Jakubczak, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN; Redskins Dietitian

Sugar Alcohol: What is all the Hype?

By Christine Turpin, RD, LDN, CSCS

Continuing with the topic of sweeteners, this week’s sweet topic for discussion is Polyols! Not often recognized by their formal name, consumer friendly names for polyols include sugar alcohol and “sugar free." Polyols acquired their name from their structure - part sugar and part alcohol.

Despite its name, sugar alcohol does not contain the alcohol we consume in adult beverages. Basically, sugar alcohol can be labeled as “sugar free” because the alcohols replace sugar sweeteners. I don’t want to mislead you; “sugar free” foods are NOT calorie-free foods.

Although “sugar free” foods contain reduced-calorie sweetening, if consumed above and beyond your daily needs they can cause weight gain, just like any other foods and nutritive sweeteners. Keep in mind, sugar alcohols occur naturally in plants (fruits & berries) and a large part of them are used in processing foods. Sugar alcohol adds texture and bulk to foods, retains moisture better and prevents foods from browning when they are heated.

Sugar alcohols are absorbed slower than regular sugars and the intestines cannot completely break them down. As a result, sugar alcohols can have a laxative effect, cause bloating, intestinal gas and diarrhea – so use in moderation!

But because your body doesn't completely absorb sugar alcohols, their effect on blood sugar is less than that of other sugars and often used as a device for managing diabetes.

The best way to determine if your product contains sugar alcohols is to read the food label. Food labels may list the specific name, such as xylitol, or simply use the general term "sugar alcohol." “Sugar alcohol” and gram weight are listed under total carbohydrate on the Nutrition Fact Label. As with artificial sweeteners, the FDA regulates the use of sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols are classified as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS).

A list of approved sugar alcohols include:
• Erythritol
• Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
• Isomalt
• Lactitol
• Maltitol
• Mannitol
• Sorbitol
• Xylitol

For those of you who have an addiction to chewing gum (sugar free of course) like I do, we consume sugar alcohol every day without giving it much thought. You can also find sugar alcohol in chocolate, candy, frozen desserts, toothpaste, mouthwash, baked goods, fruit spreads, breath mints and lozenges.

The take home message is to be an informed consumer and don’t get caught up on all the hype! Sugar free foods should not be a replacement for whole foods, are not calorie-free and do not provide a pass to consume in large quantities.

Select whole foods first and use sugar alcohols in moderation!

Healthy eating,

Next week we will discuss High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

If you are interested in learning more about the services offered by Nourish2Perform, you can reach Christine Turpin at

Have questions on sugar alcohols or want to learn more about another nutrition topic? Tell us below!

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