Polyols, called “sugar alcohols” by scientists, are another category of nutritive sweeteners. Why nutritive? Like sugars, they provide energy, or calories, too. Usually they replace sugar on an equal basis. Why the term “sugar alcohol”? To clarify, “sugar” and “alcohol” refer only to their chemical structure. Polyols don’t contain ethanol, as alcoholic beverages do. Polyols also may be referred to as “sugar replacers.”
already enjoy, including berries, other fruits, and vegetables. In fact, polyols are carbohydrates. They’re also a category of commercial ingredients derived from sucrose, glucose, and starch for example, sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol and they offer several health beneﬁts.
Sweet, Fewer Calories
Because polyols are carbohydrates, they supply energy, but fewer calories per gram than sugar does for example, 2.6 calories per gram of sorbitol and 1.6 calories per gram of mannitol. As an energy source, however, polyols are absorbed slowly and incompletely, and require little or no insulin for metabolism. That’s why foods made with polyols may offer alternatives for people with diabetes.
Their sweetness varies, from 25 percent to 100 percent as sweet as sugar. Sorbitol and mannitol, for example, may be half as sweet as table sugar; however, xylitol is just as sweet. Often polyols are combined with intense sweeteners, such as aspartame or saccharin, for a sweeter ﬂavor.
Polyols are not cavity promoting. Why? They aren’t converted to acids by oral bacteria that produce cavities, so they offer a functional food beneﬁt. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the health claim for gum, candies, beverages, and snack foods with sugar alcohols, noting that sugar alcohols in these foods do not promote tooth decay. For some people, sorbitol and mannitol may produce abdominal gas or discomfort or may have a laxative effect when they’re consumed in excess. You might see this statement on food labels: “excess consumption may have a laxative effect.” Eat foods with these sweeteners in moderation perhaps with other foods, in case your tolerance is lower.
What about their safety? Sorbitol and xylitol are on the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) list of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Mannitol has been accepted, too, pending more health studies. And the GRAS petition for isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH), and erythritol has been accepted. Research is under way for their potential as a prebiotic, too. See chapter 4 for a brief discussion of prebiotics in “Prebiotics and Probiotics: What Are They?”
Polyols in Foods
Besides adding sweetness to some sugar free foods, polyols add texture and bulk to a wide range of foods: baked goods, ice cream, fruit spreads, and candies. They also help foods stay moist, prevent browning when food is heated, and give a cooling effect to the taste of food. Baked foods made with polyols won’t have a crisp brown surface unless it comes from another ingredient. Polyols also are used in chewing gum, toothpaste, and mouthwash.
How can you spot polyols on a food label? The ingredient list may give the speciﬁc name, perhaps sorbitol. If a nutrient content claim is made, perhaps “sugar free,” it must appear with the Nutrition Facts. Look for the grams of “sugar alcohols” or of the speciﬁc polyol. The label also may say that the food has fewer calories per gram than other nutritive sweeteners.
Anyone can enjoy foods made with polyols. However, a registered dietitian or other health professional can help people with diabetes ﬁt them into a healthful eating plan. They’re considered “free foods” on diabetic exchange lists but only if one serving provides fewer than 10 grams of polyols.