Sugar alcohols are the mystery sweeteners, with weird names and murky origins. They’re derived from plants such as fruits and vegetables, and they’re used mainly by food manufacturers in everything from candy and bubble gum to cough drops and chewable vitamins. Unlike artificial sweeteners, which can be thousands of times sweeter than sugar, sugar alcohols are usually less sweet. And they have calories, though many fewer than sugar, and we don’t absorb them very well.
They’re easy to identify on food labels—their names end in the suffix “-ol,” for instance, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and malitol. Some experts recommend consuming these instead of sugar or artificial sweeteners. But I suggest keeping them to a minimum.
Sugar alcohols are imperfectly absorbed by your intestines, which can cause diarrhea, bloating, flatulence, and other forms of digestive distress. They also mess with your gut microbes and cause bacterial overgrowth.
And worst of all, they keep you hooked on sweetness. But as sugar alcohols go, there’s one that may be better than the rest. Erythritol is virtually calorie-free (0.2 calories per gram) and about 60 percent as sweet as sugar. It’s the only sugar alcohol that doesn’t cause digestive distress, because your intestines absorb it rather than sending it to your colon to ferment and cause trouble.
It won’t raise your blood sugar or insulin levels, and to my knowledge it’s the only sugar alcohol that’s sold in stores for home use. There seems to be only one problem. New research links it to weight gain because it can be absorbed and metabolized. 53 Sorry, no free lunch, or free cookies, as the case may be