Consumers say they regularly use low-calorie, sugar-free foods and beverages to stay in better overall health or simply because they taste good. Many of these products contain ingredients called “sugar alcohols,” frequently referred to as “polyols.” A polyol (or sugar alcohol) is not a sugar, nor an alcohol. Polyols are a group of low-digestible carbohydrates derived from the hydrogenation of their sugar or syrup source (e.g., lactitol from lactose). These unique sweeteners taste like sugar but have special advantages.
Polyols serve as useful sugar replacers in a wide range of products as part of a sugar free diet. These sugar free foods and products include chewing gums, candies, ice cream, baked goods and fruit spreads. In addition, they function well in fillings and frostings, canned fruits, beverages, yogurt and tabletop sweeteners. They are also used in toothpastes, mouthwashes and pharmaceutical products such as cough syrups and throat lozenges.
There are several polyols used as ingredients in sugar-free foods: erythritol, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (including maltitol syrups), isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol.
In addition to their clean sweet taste and unique functional properties, polyols offer important health benefits. For example, they are reduced in calories and do not cause sudden increases in blood sugar levels. Importantly, polyols are not readily converted to acids by bacteria in the mouth and, therefore, do not promote tooth decay.
Since most polyols are not as sweet as sugar they are often used in combination with approved low-calorie sweeteners such as acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, saccharin or sucralose. Scientific research supports the fact that these low-calorie sweeteners, like polyols, do not promote tooth decay.
In some people, over consumption of polyol-containing foods may cause gastrointestinal symptoms, including laxative effects, similar to reactions to beans, cabbage and certain high-fiber foods. Such symptoms are dependent upon an individual’s sensitivity and the other foods eaten along with the polyol-containing product. Any gastrointestinal symptoms (such as a feeling of fullness) from consuming foods with polyols, if they occur at all, are usually mild and temporary. Most people will adapt to polyols after a few days, the same way they do to high fiber foods. Food manufacturers are advised to inform consumers of these possible effects through product labeling.
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