Are sugar substitutes hiding in your food?

Sugar alcohols are cropping up on nutrition labels—from beverages to nutrition bars—including food marked "sugar free." What the experts say about them.

nutrition label Lately, ingredient lists on healthy packaged foods have increasingly included mysterious sweeteners ending in “ol.”

Zevia, a brand-new natural soda we see yogis sipping claims it has “no sugar and is sweetened with Stevia,” but beneath the zero grams of sugar is 7g of erythritol. The new Bai Antioxidant Infusions lists the same ingredient. Popular Think Thin bars are advertised as “sugar-free,” but maltitol is the fifth ingredient (and 12g of “sugar alcohol” reside in the nutrition facts).

So what are these sneaky sugars? They all belong to a category of carbohydrates called “sugar alcohols,” which are either extracted from plants or manufactured from starches.

“They contain calories, but less than regular sugar, to varying degrees. And they still provide that sweet flavor,” says best-selling author and nutritionist Julieanna Hever, M.S., R.D. They also have less of an impact on blood sugar, so they’re often used in products made for diabetics.

But that doesn’t mean you should start seeking out Xylitol every time your sweet tooth kicks in.

Julieanna Hever
Julieanna Hever, the "Plant-Based Dietitian"

“Because they’re low-digested carbs, they’re not digested the way other sugars are,” explains Hever. “So, they can be stressful on the GI tract.” So, unpleasant digestive symptoms may result if you consume too much, although the amount that actually causes them varies wildly person to person.

Still, even if your body can handle them, Hever cautions against any and all added sweeteners because they perpetuate sugar cravings.

“They make your taste buds crave high levels of sweetness. Plus, when you have sweet on your tongue, your brain expects calories and releases insulin. When the calories don’t come, you may end up storing more fat,” she says.

Renowned physician, Mark Hyman, MD, author of The Blood Sugar Solution, agrees. “My advice is to give up stevia, aspartame, sucralose, sugar alcohols like xylitol and malitol, and all of the other heavily used and marketed sweeteners unless you want to slow down your metabolism, gain weight, and become an addict,” he recently posted on his Facebook page.

Of course, easier said than done, right? Hever, however, promises it’s not as difficult as it sounds. “Once you give up added sugars and artificial sweeteners, real fruits and vegetables start to taste sweeter, and you retrain your taste buds to not crave.”

Until then, sugar alcohols are not the worst option, but be sure to pay attention to any threatening stomach rumblings. —Lisa Elaine Held

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