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Understanding sugar alcohol: A complete guide for food producers and brands

We all know that sugar has a bad reputation however tasty it may be. And while we dislike sugar’s negative health effects, consumers (and their sweet tooths) still crave its sweetness. 

So, what’s the solution for making food sweet without incorporating the adverse health effects of sugar?

The answer is sugar alcohols, a category of artificial sweeteners that offers sweetness without the high calorie and glycemic index of sugar. 

You may be wondering, what are sugar alcohols, what are their benefits and drawbacks, and how do you test for them?

Keep reading to find the answers. 

What are sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols, also known as polyols, are a type of sweetener commonly used as sugar substitutes in processed foods. 

Unlike traditional sugars (sucrose, glucose, and fructose), sugar alcohols are only partially absorbed by the body, resulting in fewer calories and a lower impact on blood sugar levels. Examples of sugar alcohols include sorbitol, xylitol, erythritol, and maltitol.

Sugar alcohols show up primarily in processed foods, particularly those marketed as "sugar-free," "low-sugar," or "diabetic-friendly." 

Food producers most commonly use sugar alcohols in the production of the following foods: 

  • Gum and mints: Many brands of chewing gum and breath mints use sugar alcohols like sorbitol, xylitol, and mannitol as sweeteners to provide sweetness without the added sugar.
  • Candies and chocolates: Confectionery products such as hard candies, chocolates, and sugar-free gumdrops often contain sugar alcohols to achieve sweetness while reducing sugar content.
  • Protein bars: Health bars, protein bars, and energy bars marketed to individuals following low-carb or ketogenic diets frequently use sugar alcohols like erythritol, maltitol, and glycerol as sweeteners to reduce net carbohydrate content.
  • Baked Goods: Cookies, brownies, muffins, and other baked goods labeled as "sugar-free" or "diabetic-friendly" may contain sugar alcohols as a substitute for sugars.
  • Beverages: Some diet sodas, sugar-free soft drinks, and flavored waters utilize sugar alcohols as sweeteners to provide a sweet taste without sugar's calories or glycemic impact.
  • Ice cream and frozen desserts: Ice cream, frozen yogurt, and other frozen desserts marketed as "low-sugar" or "sugar-free" often use sugar alcohols to enhance sweetness while reducing sugar content.
  • Jams and jellies: Fruit spreads, jams, and jellies labeled "sugar-free" or "reduced-sugar" may contain sugar alcohols.
  • Syrups and sauces: Pancake syrups, chocolate syrups, and barbecue sauces labeled as "sugar-free" may incorporate sugar alcohols as sweetening agents.
  • Low-sugar dairy products: Some yogurt, pudding, and ice cream products marketed as "low-sugar" or "diabetic-friendly" may contain sugar alcohols.
  • Baking mixes: Cake mixes, brownie mixes, and other baking mixes labeled as "sugar-free" or "low-sugar" may contain sugar alcohols.

Benefits of sugar alcohols

Besides offering sweetness without many of the adverse health effects of sugar, what other benefits do sugar alcohols offer? 

For food producers and brands, the benefits of sugar alcohols include: 

  • Lower caloric content: Sugar alcohols typically provide fewer calories per gram than traditional sugars, making them attractive to consumers who want to limit their calorie intake or lose weight.
  • Low glycemic index: Unlike regular sugars, sugar alcohols have minimal effects on blood sugar levels, making them suitable for individuals with diabetes or those following a low-glycemic diet.
  • Dental health: Sugar alcohols contribute less to tooth decay than regular sugars since they’re not readily metabolized by bacteria in the mouth.
  • Texture and flavor: Sugar alcohols mimic the sweetness and texture of sugar, making them versatile ingredients for a wide range of food products, including beverages, baked goods, and confectionery.

Drawbacks to consider

While sugar alcohols allow consumers and food brands to have their metaphorical cake and eat it too, they’re not without their drawbacks. 

Food brands need to be aware of the drawbacks of sugar alcohols when creating foods that consumers will purchase time and again. 

The drawbacks of sugar alcohols to consider include

  • Digestive issues: While sugar alcohols are generally considered safe for consumption, they can cause digestive discomfort in some individuals. Sugar alcohols can cause bloating, gas, or diarrhea, especially when consumed in larger quantities. 
  • Taste and texture: While sugar alcohols can replicate the sweetness of sugar, they may have a slightly different taste and texture. This can affect the overall sensory experience of processed foods and potentially lead to a negative customer experience. 
  • Regulatory considerations: As with traditional sugars, food producers must adhere to regulatory guidelines when using sugar alcohol in their products. This includes labeling ingredients correctly and being mindful of maximum allowable concentrations.

Testing and measuring sugar alcohols in processed foods

For food producers looking to incorporate sugar alcohols into their products, accurate testing helps improve consistency, quality, and adherence to labeling standards. 

A laboratory analysis offers one of the most reliable ways to measure levels of sugar alcohols in processed foods. 

These tests involve sending product samples to a certified laboratory like Medallion Labs, which uses specialized equipment to identify and quantify sugar alcohol levels. 

Gas chromatography—a testing method commonly used by Medallion Labs—works exceptionally well for testing products that contain sugar alcohols and will quantify the levels of Sorbitol, Maltitol, Erythritol, Xylitol, Mannitol, Isomalt, and Lactitol. 

Medallion Labs also offers High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) testing, which can help you determine sugar alcohol levels. 

While commonly used to determine levels of fructose, galactose, glucose, sucrose, maltose, and lactose sugars, HPLC can separate sugar alcohols from other compounds present in a food sample, allowing for the quantification of both sugars and sugar alcohols.

Since both methods mentioned above complement each other, Medallion Labs offers both as part of a package. If you’d like to learn more, you can contact the experts at Medallion Labs here

Sugar alcohol testing made easy

As consumer preferences evolve toward healthier food choices, sugar alcohols offer food producers and brands an easy way to reduce sugar content while maintaining sweetness and flavor.

Contact Medallion Labs' sales team to learn how they can help you know exactly how much sugar alcohol (and traditional sugars) your products contain. 

They’ll help you find the tests you need to get your products on the shelves and into the carts of grateful customers.