Possible health benefits of sugar alcohols

One benefit of sugar alcohols is that they don't contribute to tooth decay and cavities. They may also help with the following:

  • Weight control. Sugar alcohols are considered nutritive sweeteners because they contribute calories to your diet. Still, sugar alcohols have fewer calories than does regular sugar — about 2 calories per gram on average. This means that sugar alcohols can be considered lower calorie sweeteners, and they may aid weight-control efforts.
  • Diabetes. Unlike artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols can raise blood sugar levels because they're carbohydrates. But because your body doesn't completely absorb sugar alcohols, their effect on blood sugar is less than that of other sugars. Different sugar alcohols can affect blood sugar differently. You can consume sugar alcohols if you have diabetes, but you still must pay attention to the total amount of carbohydrates in your meals and snacks. Talk to your doctor or dietitian for guidance.

Possible health concerns with sugar alcohols

As with artificial sweeteners, the FDA regulates sugar alcohols as food additives. Sugar alcohols used in U.S. manufactured food generally have GRAS status.

There are few health concerns associated with sugar alcohols. When eaten in large amounts, usually more than 50 grams but sometimes as little as 10 grams, sugar alcohols can have a laxative effect, causing bloating, intestinal gas and diarrhea. Product labels may carry a warning about this potential laxative effect.

Natural sweeteners

Natural sweeteners are sugar substitutes that are often promoted as healthier options than processed table sugar or other sugar substitutes. But even these so-called natural sweeteners often undergo processing and refining, including agave nectar.

Among the natural sweeteners that the FDA recognizes as being generally safe for consumption are fruit juices and nectars, honey, molasses, and maple syrup.

Uses for natural sweeteners

Natural sweeteners have a variety of uses both at home and in processed foods. They are sometimes known as added sugars because they're added to foods during processing. They may be used to sweeten drinks such as tea and cocktails, in desserts, as pancake and waffle toppings, on cereals, and for baking, for example.

Possible health benefits of natural sweeteners

Although natural sugar substitutes may seem healthier than processed table sugar, their vitamin and mineral content isn't significantly different from that of sugar. Honey and sugar, for instance, are nutritionally similar, and both end up in your body as glucose and fructose. Choose a natural sweetener based on how it tastes and its uses, rather than on its health claims.

Possible health concerns with natural sweeteners

So-called natural sweeteners are generally safe. But there's no health advantage to consuming added sugar of any type. And consuming too much added sugar, even natural sweeteners, can lead to health problems such as tooth decay, poor nutrition, weight gain and increased triglycerides. Also, be aware that honey can contain small amounts of bacterial spores that can produce botulism toxin. Because of that, honey shouldn't be given to children less than 1 year old.

Moderation is key with sugar substitutes

When choosing sugar substitutes, it pays to be a savvy consumer. Get informed and look beyond the hype. While artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes may help with weight management, they aren't a magic bullet and should be used only in moderation.

Just because a food is marketed as sugar-free doesn't mean it's free of calories. If you eat too many sugar-free foods, you can still gain weight if they have other ingredients that contain calories. And remember that processed foods, which often contain sugar substitutes, generally don't offer the same health benefits as do whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

Oct. 09, 2012 See more In-depth