What are Sugar Alcohols?

By Christine Hronec 


When it comes to carbohydrates, there is a lot of confusion around sugar alcohols. Unfortunately their name is quite misleading as they are not sugar molecules and they are not “alcohols.” This class of carbs is also referred to as polyols and is popping up a lot more in the last decade due to the popularity of low carb nutrition protocols. The structure combines properties from alcohol and sugar molecules hence the hybrid name. This class of ingredients has a similar flavor to conventional table sugar with fewer calories because they are not completely digested in the gut.


Sugar alcohols are excellent for oral hygiene products because they do not ferment upon contact with bacteria in the mouth. While sources of sugar alcohols can be derived naturally, most of them on the market are man made. There are many types of sugar alcohols, this list encompasses the variety of types you may find on a nutrition label’s ingredient list: erythritol, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, and xylitol . However, when it comes to tracking macros, sugar alcohols are tricky.

When counting carbohydrates, net carbs can be for those who want to maximize their food intake. This is because when you subtract dietary fiber from total carbohydrates, it gives you more leeway to incorporate more carbs. In the case of sugar alcohols, most food companies subtract dietary fiber as well as sugar alcohols from total carbs when determining your carb count. The problem is that this isn’t entirely accurate. This is because the amount of carbs that are not digested from sugar alcohols will vary based on the type of sugar alcohol used in a given product. The easiest way to evaluate how you will account for a given sugar alcohol is to use their glycemic index ratings. There are some that you can use freely and subtract from the total carb count, while there are others that need to be counted.

If a portion of the calories from a sugar alcohol molecule IS digested, then it cannot be excluded from your total carb count for the day. It should be noted that there is no legal definition for “Net Carbs” assigned by the FDA. Always read the ingredient list of nutrition facts panel to get the full picture of what is actually in the food you are consuming. Use these rules of thumb when counting sugar alcohol macros:


1.) If erythritol is the sugar alcohol used in a given product, the sugar alcohol content in grams is to be subtracted from the total carbohydrates and is NOT counted towards your daily carb intake. Unlike other sugar alcohols, erythritol does not cause a spike in blood sugar because it has a glycemic index value of zero.


2.) For all other sugar alcohols, the rule of thumb is to divide the total grams of sugar alcohols in a food by 2. This is because about 50% of the calories will not be digested and the other 50% will be. So if you are eating a food that has 5g of sugar alcohol per serving, and it isn’t erythritol, 2.5g of sugar alcohol can be subtracted from the total carbs where the other half DOES count. Counting sugar alcohols to this level of detail will be more of a concern for those who are following low carb to very low carb nutrition protocols.