What Are Sugar Alcohols & Why Do We Use Them?

Written by: Barb Kelly

July 25, 2018

Sugar Alcohols are a subset of Polyols. Technically, Polyols “are compounds with multiple functional hydroxyl groups bound to a carbon atom.”[1] That’s a rather complicated definition. For purposes of this article, they are naturally and artificially produced compounds used in the chemistry and food science industries. Polyols used in foods are called sugar alcohols.

Despite their name, sugar alcohols are neither sugars nor alcohols. Sugar alcohols have a chemical structure in which part resembles sugar and part resembles alcohol; they are both and neither, forming a distinct structure that has unique characteristics. They are derived from carbohydrates but do not break down into sugars like other carbohydrates do.

Regular carbohydrates are broken down into sugars through digestion in the stomach and those sugars are absorbed into the blood stream to provide energy to all our cells. Sugar alcohols, for the most part, remain undigested in the stomach and the small intestine and, instead, remain intact until they reach the large intestine where they are broken down to produce gasses. Thus – because sugar alcohols are not broken down into sugars – the impact that sugar alcohols have on blood sugar levels is minimal.

Sugar alcohols have various uses in food production. They are used as bulking agents, emulsifiers, stabilisers, humectants, thickeners, texturisers, glazing agents or anti-caking agents.[1] However, by far, their most common use is as sweeteners used in place of sugars in foods.

Sugar alcohols are extremely useful because they mimic the sweetness of sucrose and other sugars when added to food while having only one-third to one-half the caloric value of sucrose (or even less).

Types of Sugar Alcohols

There are various kinds of sugar alcohols. Some of the most commonly used are:

  • Isomalt
  • Lactitol
  • Maltitol
  • Mannitol
  • Sorbitol
  • Xylitol
  • Erythritol

The caloric value and sweetness of each sugar alcohol varies and, indeed, some sugar alcohols are slightly digested within the gut and, thus, can affect blood sugar levels slightly but not nearly as much as regular sucrose, other sugars, and carbohydrates do. Sugar alcohols exist in different forms. For example, glycerol is a liquid while Maltitol looks a lot like table sugar. Maltitol also has a similar level of sweetness to sugar and is slightly absorbed within the stomach and intestines. Erythritol, which is also in powder form, does not raise blood sugar levels at all but has only 60-70% the sweetness of sugar.

Common among all sugar alcohols is their inability to cause tooth decay because they are not digestible by saliva and mouth bacteria and are not reduced to decay-causing acids in the mouth. Sugar alcohols – with the exception of Erythritol – can cause gastric uncomfortableness in large doses (gas, flatulence, and/or diarrhea) but research has shown that these aspects of sugar alcohols may prevent colon cancers. Some sugar alcohols have been shown to help blood pressure levels. Finally, sugar alcohols have a lower caloric value than sugars and, as such, as extremely useful to those wishing to reduce their caloric intake to lose or maintain weight loss.

NameSweetness Relative to SucroseFood Energy



Table 1. Food Energy and Relative Sweetness of Various Sugar Alcohols. This table compares sucrose sweetness and food energy to various sugar alcohols used in foods for various reasons.[2]

Why Ross Chocolates Uses Sugar Alcohols

Our founder, Bob Ross, started searching for sugar-free chocolate in 1997 when he – a devoted chocolate lover – was diagnosed with diabetes. Bob spent 2 years developing chocolate recipes because he wasn’t able to find a sugar-free chocolate that tasted close to the flavour and texture or the sugar-sweetened chocolate he had once enjoyed. Finally, he settled on a recipe he created using Maltitol as its sweetener and the rest, as they say, is history.

Today, Ross chocolates continues to use Maltitol recipes to create our original milk, dark, and white chocolates. We continue to look for other no sugar added chocolate recipes that use other sugar alcohols as well. Our newest products are sweetened with the natural sweetener Stevia and Erythritol. We have pursued recipes using Erythritol because Erythritol is the one sugar alcohol that both does not cause blood sugar increases at all (see chart for Glycemic Index) and does not cause the digestive system upsets (gas, bloating, flatulence) that other sugar alcohols sometimes do when eaten in large quantities.

[1] European Association of Polyol Producers. White Paper. Retrieved on July 7, 2017 from http://www.polyols-eu.org/documents/What_are_polyols.pdf

[2] Wikipedia. Sugar Alcohols. Retrieved on July 11, 2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sugar_alcohol

[1] WiseGEEK. What Are Polyols? Retrieved on July 7, 2017 from http://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-polyols.htm.

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