Low calorie sweeteners are used in place of sugar to make low calorie and sugar free foods like chewing gum, candy, cookies, ice cream, yogurt, jelly and cough drops. These sugar substitutes, called sugar alcohols, are a type of carbohydrate, but they are not sugars and they do not contain alcohol like beer or wine. They are used in food processing to sweeten or bulk up the food in place of regular sugar. They appear in the food’s ingredient list as mannitol, maltitol, isomalt, lactitol, sorbitol, erythritol, and xylitol. All contain fewer calories, are absorbed into the body more slowly, and have less impact on blood sugar than regular sugar.
While the slower absorption decreases levels of blood sugar it also can create a laxative effect causing gas, bloating and diarrhea. If small amounts are eaten throughout the day, there is less chance of digestive problems, but eating a boxful of sugarless cookies or chewing sugarless gum all day can promote diarrhea.
Products make with sugar alcohols can be labeled “sugar free, “ sugarless,” or “no sugar added” but keep in mind that sugar alcohols still contain carbs and calories. Sugar free does not equal calorie free. In fact, some sugar free foods contain as much, if not more, calories than those made with sugar.
Sugar contains 4 calories in a gram. Four grams equal about a teaspoon. So a teaspoon of sugar has approximately 16 calories. A teaspoon of a sugar alcohol, depending on which one is used, could have anywhere from 1 calorie to 12 calories. All sugar alcohols contain some calories.
Xylitol, used in sugar free chocolates and chewing gums, has slightly over 2 calories in a gram, so it has half the calories of sugar. The same goes for maltitol, mannitol, and sorbitol used in sugar free ice cream, candies, and cookies. Erythritol, which has only 0.2 calories per gram and is often mixed with stevia or monk fruit as a granulated tabletop sweetener to substitute for sugar. Brand names you may recognize are Truvia, PureVia or Fruit-Sweetness.
Should you use products containing sugar alcohols? It’s really up to you. Most are made from glucose, a natural sugar, or extracted from fruits and vegetables. Sugar alcohols have less of an effect on blood sugar levels, so they are a better choice for people with diabetes. They do not promote cancer. And, interestingly they help promote the growth of friendly bacteria in your intestinal tract, which enhances your natural defenses against unfriendly invaders.
But keep in mind, eating sugar free cookies does not give you license to eat the whole box. And when you sprinkle a low calorie sweetener like Truvia into your coffee, you don’t get a free pass to order cheesecake.