How do sugar alcohols affect diabetes management?

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Kate Myerson
Nutrition & Dietetics
Sugar alcohols are often put in products marketed towards people with diabetes stating they are sugar free foods. Just because a food says it is sugar free however doesn't mean it will not effect blood sugars. More than just sugar can raise blood glucose, flour in a baked good for example or milk in ice cream. Sugar alcohols are not completely digested, this is the reason that it can cause some upset stomach, gas, bloating or diarrhea. If you do choose a product with sugar alcohols, read the labe. If a food has more than 5 grams of sugar alcohols, you can subtract half of the amount of sugar alcohols from the total carbohydrates.

Sugar alcohols, which include xylitol, mannitol, and sorbitol, are insulin-neutral, so that's why they're recommended for diabetics. They are lower in calories than sugar, but they are not zero calories. Xylitol especially tastes just like sugar and measures the same as sugar, so it's a good substitute for baking (except breads because xylitol will kill the yeast). Another benefit of xylitol is that it, over time, will eliminate Steptococcus mutans from your mouth, which will substantially lower the possibility of developing a cavity. Diabetics commonly have dry mouth, too, and xylitol stimulates the flow of saliva.

Janis Jibrin, MS, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
Sugar alcohols are not calorie-free (they have about half the calories of sugar), but because they are chemically different from sugar, they are allowed to use the "sugar-free" claim. The ones that commonly show up on ingredient lists are xylitol, mannitol, lactitol, and erythritol. The pros: they have a minimal impact on blood sugar, they don't cause dental caries, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) considers them safe. The catch: consumed in excess, they cause bloating and gas because they aren't completely absorbed into your system. (Erythritol seems to have the fewest gastrointestinal side effects and is the lowest in calories.)

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.