How Sweet is the Sweet? Sugar Alcohols
Updated: Mar 30, 2020
The newest sweeteners of our study thus far, sugar alcohols, are another substitute for refined sugar. Sorbitol, erythritol, and xylitol are the most commonly used sugar alcohols, all of which have grown in popularity since their conception around the 1960’s. They have been successfully used by diabetics since their glycemic load ranges from 0-10 (all considerably low), as well as prevention of tooth decay. Despite this common use, there is a great divide in professional opinions concerning their safety. This is primarily based on the lack of “aged research”--the difference of only a few decades compared to the other sweeteners that have proven the test of centuries. So let’s consider the current research, with the caution that these are not a whole food nor a traditional sweetener.
First, how are these sugar alcohols made? While these alcohols naturally occur in fruits, vegetables, cane sugar, and birch bark (in the case of xylitol), the method by which they are manufactured is another story--the industrialized process of sugar hydrogenation. Technically, this is a 5-6 step process which uses high pressure, high temperature, acetic acid, hydrolyzing acid, nick-aluminum and other residues.  You would think that after all this, these products would be considered toxic. However, they are granted the GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status by the FDA, and current research does not oppose this.
Secondly, what are the benefits? These sugar alcohols, with xylitol as the primary contributor, have proven to be effective for preventing tooth decay  as well as treating other bacterial infections or overgrowths, due to their antibacterial properties. Also, with the low glycemic load mentioned above, these sugar alcohols have been proven to be therapeutic to blood sugar levels.  They have been an alternative to prescription antibiotics, blood sugar control medications, and artificial sweeteners commonly used by diabetics (which will be the topic of next week’s article).
So, considering these benefits of sugar alcohols and how they are made, there are several things to conclude concerning their use in our homes. Clearly, they are not a whole food, as the process through which they undergo strips them of their original nutrient make-up and chemical structure. While there is no current evidence that the sugar hydrogenation is harmful, time may prove otherwise, as it has taken generations to see the ill effects of hydrogenated fats. Also, even though they may be helpful to support blood sugar handling, I confidently believe there are more effective and sustainable methods which support healing. Last of all, I must note that these sugar alcohols are never locally produced, like our honey or maple syrup, and thus, are not the most economically sustainable product.
Now, what is your conclusion? Whether you choose to avoid these sweeteners altogether, regularly consume them, or include them occasionally for therapeutic purposes, it it important to note that we are the guinea pigs for future generations. One day we will more fully understand the benefits and any consequences of sugar alcohols.
If you have questions or comments for Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, Maria Adam, contact her at thrivinghealthNY.com.