Are sugar alcohols healthier alternative sweeteners?

Hands holding a plastic jar with nutrition label displayed. It contains xylitol.

January 4, 2024 — Choosing sugar alcohols instead of sugar or other sweeteners may provide health benefits, but Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health nutrition expert Frank Hu advises consuming them in moderation.

Sugar alcohol is a type of sugar substitute found in products like candies and chewing gum, and is identifiable on ingredient lists by names including sorbitol and xylitol. It is derived from plants but can also be synthetically produced to create commercial sweeteners. Hu, Fredrick J. Stare Professor of Nutrition and Epidemiology and chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School, explained the pros and cons of sugar alcohols in a December 18, 2023, Harvard Health Publishing article. 

Sugar alcohols contain fewer calories than sugar and taste less sweet than other low-calorie sweeteners like aspartame, Hu said. They also break down slowly in the gut, keeping blood sugar and insulin levels from spiking. 

Hu also noted that there was a downside to sugar alcohols’ slow digestion. If consumed in high amounts, they may cause gastrointestinal problems for some people. Therefore, Hu suggested introducing sugar alcohols into the diet gradually. The potential for any long-term health risks from these products is being studied. 

“Sugar alcohols offer a healthier alternative to sugar because of their lower calorie content and reduced glycemic response,” Hu said. “But they also have potential drawbacks, especially for those with sensitive digestive systems, so it’s best to consume them in moderation as part of an overall healthy eating pattern.”

Read the Harvard Health Publishing article: How healthy is sugar alcohol?

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