Sugar alcohols, or polyols, have a long history of use in a wide variety of foods. They have characteristics of both sugars and alcohols. Despite its name, however, sugar alcohols do not contain ethanol–the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, such as beer, wine and whiskey.
Sugar alcohols occur naturally in small amounts in a variety of fruits and vegetables. They are also produced industrially from the sugars of birch wood, bagasse, cassava, potato, rice, wheat and corn through the substation of an aldehyde group with a hydroxyl one.
Sugar alcohols as food additives
Commercially produced sugar alcohols provide a sweet taste and contain 2.4 calories per gram compared with 4 calories per gram of sugar. This makes sugar alcohols useful as a food additive to replace sugar in a variety of sugar-free and reduced-sugar products such as chewing gum, dairy desserts,and candy. Sugar alcohols in food also add bulk and texture, help retain moisture, prevent browning that occurs during heating and provide a cooling sensation in the mouth. Manufactures frequently use sugar alcohols in combination with high intensity artificial sweeteners to attain the desired taste and sweetness. Many foods labeled “no sugar added” or “sugar free” contain sugar alcohols.
Table 1 shows the forms of sugar alcohols, their sweetness relative to sucrose and their applications in food.
|Examples of Sugar Alcohols in Foods1|
|Type||Sweetness (sucrose = 100%)||Food Applications|
|E968||Erythritol||60-80%||Bulk sweetener in low-calorie foods|
|E953||Isomalt||45-65%||Confections, fudge, cough drops, throat lozenges|
|E966||Lactitol||30-40%||Chocolate, frozen dairy desserts|
|E965||Maltitol||90%||Confections, chewing gum, baked goods|
|E421||Mannitol||50-70%||Chewing gum, ice cream, confections|
|E420; GRAS||Sorbitol||50-70%||Confections, frozen desserts, baked goods|
|E967; GRAS||Xylitol||100%||Chewing gum, confections, pharmaceuticals|
Table 1: Sugar alcohols with E-number are allowed in EU. GRAS = Generally Recognized As Safe by the U.S Food and Drug Administration.
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Sugar alcohols are attractive alternatives to sucrose (table sugar). They provide nearly half the calories per gram, do not promote tooth decay and do not cause sudden increases in blood sugar levels.
Because sugar alcohols are poorly digested and incompletely absorbed, consuming them in large amounts can lead to flatulence, abdominal discomfort and induce a laxative effect.2 For this reason, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that the label of food whose consumption may result in daily ingestion of 50 grams requires the statement: “Excess consumption may have a laxative effect.”
At the same time, however, the indirect metabolism via fermentative degradation by the intestinal flora of sugar alcohols produce short-chain fatty acids. Short-chain fatty acids have been studied for their role in reducing the risk of inflammatory disease such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and heart disease.3
When replaced with sugar, the lower-calorie value of sugar alcohols might also help consumers to reduce their energy intakes and lose weight.
What’s more, consumption of products containing sugar alcohols do not cause – or at least clinically significantly – an increase in blood sugars or insulin secretions, making them appealing for people with diabetes.
The driving forces
As sugar alcohols are increasingly used in food and pharmaceutical applications due their functional properties and health benefits, the global market and demand for sugar alcohols continues to climb.
The demand for low-calorie foods is expected to grow larger, driven by increasing consumer awareness of diabetes and weight management. Low-sugar diabetic foods and sugar-free confectionary are major application areas driving this growth.4
Pharmaceuticals are also predicted to have a growing share in the market due to the increasing use of sugar alcohol in the production process of drugs.
Among the types of sugar alcohols, sorbitol is expected to account for a significant market proportion owing to its wider applications in the pharmaceuticals and food and beverages industry.
The bottom line
Sugar alcohols provide a sweet taste with much fewer calories than table sugar. In food, sugar alcohols add bulk and texture, help retain moisture and produce a cooling sensation in the mouth.
The functional properties of sugar alcohols in the food and pharmaceutical industry along with their health benefits are expected to be the driving forces behind consumer demand for years to come.
- Grembecka M. Sugar alcohols – their role in the modern world of sweeteners: a review. Eur Food Res Technol. 2015; 241(1):1-14.
- Lenhart A, Chey WD. A Systematic Review of the Effects of Polyols on Gastrointestinal Health and Irritable Bowl Syndrome. Adv Nutr. 2017; 8(4):587-596.
- McLoughlin RF, Berthon BS, Jensen ME, Baines KJ, Wood LG. Short-chain fatty acids, prebiotics, symbiotic, and systematic inflammation: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Clin Nutr. 2017; 106(3):960-945.
- Market Research Future. “Sugar Alcohol Market Research Report – Forecast to 2023.” Market Research Future. https://www.marketresearchfuture.com/reports/sugar-alcohol-market-1394.
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