How are Sugar Alcohols Made?

Many people trying to reduce their refined sugar intake have turned to sugar alcohols like erythritol and sorbitol as alternatives. However, few people are aware of how sugar alcohols are made and how they’re metabolized in the body. We’ll be exploring all that below in order to help you decide if sugar alcohols align with your health goals. 

But before we get started, let’s make sure we’re clear on what sugar alcohols are:

What Are Sugar Alcohols?

Sugar alcohols are a type of hybrid carbohydrate made from sugar molecules and alcohol molecules. Some of the more popular sugar alcohols like erythritol and sorbitol are actually naturally occurring in certain fruits and vegetables. 

The main reason for sugar alcohols’ surging popularity is because they’re about (25-100%) as sweet as sugar, but significantly lower in calories. Studies have also found that sugar alcohols don’t raise blood sugar as much as refined sugar.

The most common sugar alcohols include:

  • erythritol
  • xylitol
  • hydrogenated starch hydrolysates
  • isomalt
  • lactitol
  • mannitol
  • maltitol
  • sorbitol

When it comes to processed foods, xylitol, erythritol, and maltitol are the most commonly used sugar alcohols. This is because their flavor is the closest to regular sugar.

How are Sugar Alcohols Made?

As mentioned above, sugar alcohols do occur naturally in fruits and vegetables. This means that they can be derived from these foods via fermentation.

However, sugar alcohols are more often made through chemical modification of glucose and sucrose. This process is similar to natural fermentation, and it ultimately produces sugar alcohols that are chemically identical to naturally occurring sugar alcohols. 

You can't make sugar alcohols at home though. You start with corn, but then things get a little more complicated. You'll need very specialized machines to make sugar alcohols.

how erythritol is made

Source: Cargill

How are Sugar Alcohols Metabolized?

When you consume sugar alcohols, your small intestine is not able to completely absorb them. This is why sugar alcohols are classified as low-digestible carbs. In order to be metabolized, sugar alcohols must travel to the large intestine and be fermented by the bacteria there.

Since our bodies don’t fully digest sugar alcohols, it’s not uncommon to experience some unpleasant GI symptoms soon after consuming them. One 2006 study found that participants who consumed xylitol reported bloating, gas, upset stomach, and diarrhea. In comparison, erythritol appeared to cause fewer digestive issues. However, it still produced some nausea and gas when consumed in large doses.

For most people, consuming sugar alcohols every once in a while won’t be problematic. The problem comes when you consume foods with sugar alcohols multiple times throughout a day. In that case, it’s certainly possible to have digestive troubles, and you may be better off switching to foods with a different sweetener.

If you’re trying to consume fewer alcohol sugars, pay special attention to the ingredient label on your foods. Popular non-alcohol sweeteners like stevia and monk fruit are often still mixed with erythritol and listed as secondary ingredients, meaning erythritol is still the primary sweetener.

stevia ingredients

monk fruit ingredients
inulin stevia ingredients
splenda ingredients

Why Don’t We Use Sugar Alcohols at Maxine’s Heavenly?

Sugar alcohols are low in calories and they don’t spike blood sugar as much as refined sugars. Given these benefits, we’re often asked why we don’t use sugar alcohols in our cookies

We prefer these naturally sweet options like cocoonut sugar and dates that our bodies recognize and want. Coconut sugar and date sugar are easily digested and are lower glycemic, meaning that are slowly metabolized by your body, giving you sustained energy and no sugar spike or crash. Plus, they are 100% plant-based and among the most sustainable sweetener options out there.

cookies made with dates

To learn more about the differences between refined sugars, alcohol sugars, coconut sugar, and date sugar, make sure to download our ebook. It’s a free guide on how to give your pantry a full sugar makeover! You can download it here.

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