We see “no sugar” and "sugar free" on labels a lot, but many brands will use that label when in fact, they are still using sneaky sugars in their products, better known as sugar alcohols. Sugar alcohols are sweeteners that can occur naturally in certain fruits and vegetables, but are more often man-made and added to processed foods.
So why are we seeing these sneaky sugars popping up on more and more food labels? Well, many food companies use them to give you the “lower sugar” you seek, without sacrificing the sweetness, while others have realized that sugar alcohols don’t cause cavities - which is why they’re often used in gum, beverages, ice creams and granola bars.
But what are the effects of these sugar alcohols on our bodies? Well, first and foremost, it’s important to understand that the small intestine, which breaks down food from the stomach and absorbs many nutrients, doesn't absorb sugar alcohols well, so fewer calories get into your body. This sounds like a good thing, BUT because sugar alcohols aren't completely absorbed, if you consume too many you may experience gas, bloating, and diarrhea. The sugar alcohols travel back up to the large intestine where they are metabolized by your gut bacteria. Not fun.
In relation to our blood sugar levels, most sugar alcohols have little to no effect on blood sugar and insulin levels — with the exception of maltitol. The American Diabetes Association claims that sugar alcohols are acceptable in a moderate amount but should not be eaten in excess.
So… next time you’re at the store, make sure you read the labels! Many foods labeled "sugar free" or "no sugar added'' have sugar alcohols in them. Here are the names on the ingredient list to look out for.
- Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH)
- Foods that are labeled “sugar free”
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