Falling for foods claiming lots of protein, a sweet taste and only one gram of sugar? The buzz around products sweetened with substances like erythritol is big and blinding. Many companies are jumping on the bandwagon, using sugar alcohols as a way to market their products as healthy, sugar-free or low-calorie treats. You can find sugar alcohol in items like ice cream, snack and protein bars, chewing gums, and energy drinks. If you’re trying to eat healthier, but still want to indulge in a sweet treat, these products might be tempting. But are they really a healthy alternative?
What are sugar alcohols?
Sugar alcohols are known as polyols. They are commonly created from the glucose of corn starch, and then industrially produced into various sugar alcohols, such as erythritol, glycerol, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH).
Currently, erythritol has become one of the most popular sugar alcohols used by food companies, and is found to be 60 to 80% sweeter than table sugar. It was originally discovered in 1848 by Scottish chemist, John Stenhouse, and Japan has been using it since the early nineties in their jams, jellies, chocolates, yogurts, and more. The food industry, as well as consumers, are loving this ingredient because it is extremely sweet, and also noncaloric. It’s an easy way to capture the hearts and minds of the health-conscious consumer, but there are surprising repercussions to consuming these alcohol and sugar hybridized molecules.
Are sugar alcohols healthy?
While people might believe that sugar alcohols are a natural alternative, the truth is that most of these products are derived from genetically modified organism (GMO) crops. So not only are you eating something highly processed and created in a laboratory, but your body doesn’t know what to do with this man-made ingredient. Instead of metabolizing these sugars, the body instead passes it through the urine. Studies have found that the consumption of GMO products is linked to infertility, immune issues, accelerated aging, and problems with the gastrointestinal system.
Sugar alcohols are typically combined with other artificial components to create that low-calorie sweet taste. They are usually highly processed, even if they boast about being a natural sweetener. Furthermore, erythritol has found to be a terrific pesticide, too! A study in 2014 found that erythritol was toxic to fruit flies and, when digested, it drastically decreased the life span of the fly. Erythritol is currently being considered as an environmentally sustainable approach for insect control.
Effects of consuming sugar alcohols
Besides the fact that sugar alcohols are coming from GMO crops and being used as a pesticide, these tiny molecules have also been found to cause a laxative effect, creating serious and sometimes painful tummy issues. According to the University of Kentucky, “some people may experience side effects even with small amounts of sugar alcohols like bloating, diarrhea, and headaches.” And while diarrhea might not seem that horrible a trade-off for eating an entire pint of ice cream, diarrhea also leads to dehydration and malnutrition. Some people also experience allergic reactions to sugar alcohols, and can experience hives and other skin reactions after consuming even small amounts.
Another issue with sugar alcohols is the fact that they are misunderstood to be a weight loss or gain prevention tool. It was previously thought that the body doesn’t recognize or metabolize these substances, and that they pass right through the body. A 2017 study discovered that erythritol is actually a biomarker for increased fat mass and weight gain. While it is not clear whether erythritol that is produced by the body and/or exposure from food contributes to the erythritol-weight gain association, there is definitely a connection to erythritol and long-term weight gain.
Eating these products can actually also lead to overeating! According to Dr. Elizabeth Bonham, artificial sweeteners confuse the reward center of the brain and trick your gut. When you are eating real sugar the reward center of the brain releases feelings of pleasure, and these feelings diminish as you increase consumption (like the law of diminishing returns). But with highly processed fake sweeteners, you don’t receive that same signal of pleasure, and hence tend to overeat. In the gut, the hormonal response to artificial sweetener is different, and the body doesn’t respond in the same way to those empty calories. This disruption can raise blood sugar levels and even cause diabetes.
Finally, excess consumption of foods laden with sugar alcohols and other artificial sweeteners can also cause an addiction to sweet tastes. While humans have some natural tendencies towards sweet flavors (human breastmilk, for example), we also have the ability to taste other flavors like sour, salty and bitter. Too much focus on sweetness dulls the tastebuds. Furthermore, it is not just our tongues that have the ability to perceive sweetness – many other organs come into play. The effects of consuming sugar alcohols can thus be seen throughout the entire body.
What are the alternatives?
I’ve always followed the adage that: if you can’t pronounce it, it doesn’t belong in your body. Sugar alcohols fall right into this category. Why consume a diarrhea causing insecticide when there are so many natural options available? When looking for a natural and healthy sweetener, think about fruit sugars or honey. Sugar that comes from fruit is processed differently by the body than refined white sugar, or sugar alcohols. Fruit also contains fiber, which slows the metabolism of glucose and allows a variety of nutrients to enter the body. At B.O.S.S. Food Co., we only use dried fruits, honey, and coconut nectar to sweeten our superfood bars, because we know important natural sugar is for the body and mind. All of the fruit is purchased unsweetened, with no added juice sweeteners, sugar or other additives.
Don’t let the marketing and gimmicks fool you. Not all sugars are created equal, and certainly not ones made in a lab with GMO ingredients! According to Dr. Axe, certified Doctor of Natural Health, sugar alcohols fall in his list of the top five worst artificial sweeteners. So, before you reach for that low-calorie, sugar-alcohol-sweetened treat, stop and think about what you are putting in your body.