Every time I chew a piece of sugar-free gum I marvel at how it’s able to be so cool and sweet, while remaining sugar-free. This paradox is attributed in part to the use of two key groups of ingredients: low-calorie sweeteners and sugar alcohols.
What are sugar alcohols?
Well to start, sugar alcohols are also called polyols, and are neither sugar nor alcohol. In fact, they are a class of carbohydrate that have properties of both sugars and alcohols. But don’t be alarmed by the word “alcohol” here. Sugar alcohols do not contain the type of alcohol found in adult beverages.
For my fellow chemistry nerds out there, structurally speaking, polyols resemble a sugar molecule, except that they contain an additional hydroxyl group (one oxygen and one hydrogen). This extra “-OH” group prevents their complete absorption by the body, which means they provide fewer calories (between 0 and 3 calories per gram) than sugar.
Where are sugar alcohols found?
Sugar alcohols occur naturally in small amounts in many fruits and vegetables. They are also commercially made from sugars and starches and are added to foods like chewing gum, dairy desserts, frostings, grain-based desserts and sweets. Along with adding sweetness to these types of foods, sugar alcohols serve various other functions like providing the cooling effect you get from gum.
Do sugar alcohols offer any health benefits?
In addition to helping reduce calories in some foods, sugar alcohols in chewing gums can also be beneficial for dental health.
Xylitol, a type of sugar alcohol that inhibits oral bacteria, doesn’t contribute to cavity formation. But it’s not just the sugar alcohols acting alone that can combat cavities. The act of chewing gum promotes the flow of saliva, a natural protection for teeth. And if chewed after eating, this increased flow of saliva can neutralize some of the byproducts that are produced when food is broken down by bacteria on teeth. Because of this (and a large amount of scientific evidence), the American Dental Association recognizes that sugar-free gum can help protect teeth.
Are sugar alcohols safe?
Yes, sugar alcohols are safe to consume. Although there is no recommended amount to aim for, like most foods they should be consumed in moderation. Eating too much of sugar alcohols can lead to bloating, gas and diarrhea in some individuals since they are not completely absorbed by the body. Because of this, the FDA mandates that foods containing certain amounts of the sugar alcohols sorbitol or mannitol must include a warning on the food label saying that “excess consumption may have a laxative effect.”
Before you get too worried about overdoing it on sugar alcohols, keep in mind that the amount used in any one product is typically small. While content may vary, many popular sugar-free gums contain 1-2 grams of sugar alcohol blends per piece. If you’re curious about the type and amount of sugar alcohols in your favorite gum or foods, take a look at the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list. They’ll be listed right there for your chewing…I mean viewing pleasure.
Contributions to this blog post from University of Maryland Dietetic Intern Julia Werth.