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Ep. 73 – Artificial Sweeteners

The trend today is away from artificial sweeteners. Manufacturers are still trying to remove the bitter aftertaste of stevia by processing the bitterness out. Is that really natural? Today on Straight Talk on Health, Dr. Chet Zelasko gives the low down on artificial sweeteners

Welcome to Straight Talk Health. I’m your host Dr. Chet Zelasko. Straight Talk Health is a joint production with WGVU in Grand Rapids MI. I examine the world of health. Nutrition. Exercise. Diet. Supplementation. If there’s something new, I look at the science behind them, and let you know whether it’s real or not. You can check out other things that I do on my website Drchet.com and sign up for my free emails.

Questions about food ingredients come in cycles. While I’m consistently asked about artificial sweeteners, I’ve gotten a lot of questions and comments about sugar alcohols lately. What are they? Do they actually have alcohol in them? Are they carbohydrates? Can they effect my blood sugar? I’ll chip in one of my own: can they cause intestinal gas? after a recent personal experience with them? Time to get some answers to very common sweeteners—the sugar alcohols.

What are sugar alcohols? They are one type of reduced-calorie sweetener. The thing is, they are neither sugars nor alcohols. They are carbohydrates with structures that resemble sugar and alcohol. Note that I said reduced-calorie, not calorie free. You can find them in protein bars and shakes, ice creams, cookies, puddings, candies, and chewing gum that is labeled as “sugar-free” or “no sugar added”.

That seems suspicious. Sugar-free? The label is true—there are no sugars—but that doesn’t mean the product is calorie free. Foods that contain sugar alcohols can be labeled sugar-free because they replace full-calorie sugar sweeteners.

How many calories are we talking about? On average, sugar alcohols provide about half the calories of sugar and other carbohydrates. The sweetness of sugar alcohols varies from 25% to 100% as sweet as table sugar. Table sugar is called sucrose and is made up of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule. While sugar provides 4 kcal/gram, sugar alcohols provide an average of 2 kcal/gram—ranging from 1.5 kcal/gram to 3 kcal/gram.

The most common forms of sugar alcohols found in food are erythritol, xylitol, mannitol, maltitol, and sorbitol. Sugar alcohols have been found to be a beneficial substitute for sugar for reducing the glycemic response. That means that blood sugars will not rise as high not cause as much insulin to be released when sugar alcohols are in foods as opposed to regular sugars. Another benefit is that sugar alcohols reduce dental caries, more commonly called cavities. Reduction of dental caries is often why they are found in products geared toward children.

Are sugar alcohols artificial? Not really as sugar alcohols naturally occur in many fruits and vegetables. Here’s another reason they are not really artificial: the body can make a sugar alcohol called sorbitol. While that means it is natural, the downside is that when the body makes it, it usually means the individual has a problem like insulin resistance and diabetes. It can be deposited into nerve cells and blood vessels and effect the ability of the cells to work properly. But that doesn’t happen when sugar alcohols are consumed as sweeteners in foods. Why not? They are not absorbed in to the blood stream intact. Sugar alcohols are slowly and incompletely absorbed from the small intestine into the blood. As a result, they provide fewer calories per gram than sugar and produce a smaller change in blood sugar than other carbohydrates.

While sugar alcohols used in food are naturally found in nature, they are commercially made for use in food products. That doesn’t mean they are artificial sweeteners. They are just made in food processing plants rather than extracted from tons and tons of fruits and vegetables—which arguably—would cause a lot of food waste.

What are the advantages of sugar alcohols? Foods made with low- or reduced-calorie sweeteners can have fewer calories than foods made with sugar and other caloric sweeteners. That can be helpful if you’re trying to lose weight or even to prevent weight gain. These products often times also have fewer carbohydrates which can be helpful in managing blood glucose levels.

In that we live in the ketogenic diet era, you may want to know if sugar alcohols are keto friendly and won’t through you out of ketosis. The best that could be said is that they are keto-friendly. Foods sweetened with erythritol will provide no carb calories so they can be ignored. For all the rest of the sugar alcohols, cutting the carb grams in half should work. You can then be on your keto way.

Low-calorie sweeteners are useful for adding extra flavor or sweetness to your food, with few extra calories. In addition, these sweeteners are useful for reducing calories and carbohydrates when used instead of sugar in coffee, tea, cereal, and on fruit. You can experiment with your own recipes to include low-calorie sweeteners. In researching the use of sugar alcohols, I haven’t found any real issues with cooking and baking with sugar alcohols as there have been with artificial sweeteners. I still think that trial and error is the only way to know for sure. The sweetness levels vary between the types of sugar alcohols.

Are there any disadvantages to sugar alcohols? Just remember that sugar-free doesn’t mean calorie free. While the amount of sugar will be lower in any food that uses sugar alcohols, you still have to read the label to see what else is found in the products. Check out the fats and other carbohydrates in the food to make sure you’re not getting even more calories than in a full sugared version of the product.

Are there any health issues associated with sugar alcohols? None that I found other than this—and I found this one out in a not so great a way. Years ago, I found that I didn’t digest sugar alcohols very well. Because we as humans don’t have the enzymes to completely break down sugar alcohols, they can have a laxative effect or other gastric symptoms like excess gas in some people. The issue will vary by individual so the only way to know for sure is by trial and error. That’s how I know how sugar alcohols affect me. I was reminded of it recently when I ate a great tasting food bar. It was so good I had another one. Several hours later I was reminded that my body doesn’t process sugar alcohols very well. Look, excess gas isn’t the worst thing in the world. Fermentation of indigestible foods happen all the time from insoluble fibers to the carbohydrates in beans. It doesn’t mean that anything is wrong; it just has side effects that are undesirable in public settings.

Sugar alcohols are safe substitutes for fully-sugared products and you or your kids may end up with fewer cavities. I still use them but I know it’s a quantity thing for me. Some are good but too many—not so much. Just remember fewer calories doesn’t mean no calories. Don’t overdo it and make sure you read labels. Eating twice as much of a product that has half the calories of a regular version means you will still be getting the same number of calories. There is no such thing as a calorie free lunch—or breakfast or dinner either. That’s it for sugar-alcohols and that’s it for this edition of STOH. Until next time, this is Dr. Chet Zelasko saying health is a choice. Choose wisely today and every day.

Dr. Chet Zelasko is a scientist, speaker, and author. Dr. Chet has a Ph.D. and MA in Exercise Physiology and Health Education from Michigan State University and a BS in Physical Education from Canisius College. He’s certified by the American College of Sports Medicine as a Health and Fitness Specialist, belongs to the American Society of Nutrition, and has conducted research and been published in peer-reviewed journals. You can find him online at drchet.com.
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