Ever polished off a pint of low calorie ice cream or chomped on sugar-free gum? Then there’s a good chance you’ve tasted a sugar alcohol.

These naturally derived, low calorie sweeteners can be found in a ton of packaged foods, and they can be a legit healthy alternative if you’re trying to watch your sugar intake.

But they come with some downsides you’ll definitely want to consider. Products containing sugar alcohols don’t automatically have no carbs or fewer calories, and they may even cause stomach problems in some people.

We give you a taste of the truth on sugar alcohols.

Here’s what you should know about these sweeteners, what makes them different from actual sugar, and how much of them is OK to eat.

Are they some kind of sugary alcoholic beverage? Nice try, but no.

Sugar alcohols, also called polyols, are a type of carbohydrate used as low calorie sweeteners and bulking agents. But they don’t actually contain sugar or alcohol.

Sugar alcohols occur naturally in fruits, vegetables, and even some grains, so they can be derived from plants. But they’re often manufactured from simple carbs like glucose or starch.

Sugar alcohols contain one-half to one-third as many calories as actual sugar. Unlike actual sugar, they’re only partially absorbed by the body and don’t cause a rapid spike in blood sugar.

They’re often used in low sugar or low cal foods and candies, so they can be a good option for people with diabetes or those watching their calories or carbs.

As for the name? It just comes from the fact that their chemical structure looks a little bit like table sugar and a little bit like alcohol. You’re not actually consuming table sugar or booze when you eat something made with a sugar alcohol.

Are these sweeteners literally a way to have your cake and eat it too? Sugar alcohols definitely have some perks that are worth knowing about.

They’re a lower-cal alternative to sugar

Sugar alcohols contain 1.5 to 3 calories per gram compared to sugar’s 4 calories per gram. That means baked goods and other foods that sub sugar alcohols for actual sugar might be lower in calories. Neat.

They can be helpful for low carb diets

Since sugar alcohols aren’t completely absorbed by the body and don’t spike blood sugar as much, they can be a good alternative for people watching their carbs, including those with diabetes.

However, keep in mind that certain sugar alcohols have more of an impact on blood sugar than others.

They’re actually good for dental health

Sugar alcohols don’t promote tooth decay like sugar does. That’s why they’re often used in chewing gums and some candies.

According to a 2010 research review, they may help prevent dental caries, or damage to your tooth enamel. And a 2012 study found that they may potentially bring down the levels of harmful bacteria in your saliva (without affecting the good guys).

Not all sugar alcohols are created equal when it comes to your teeth. While there aren’t quite as many studies on erythritol as on xylitol, one 2014 study found that erythritol may be more protective for your chompers than xylitol or sorbitol.

They may be a friend to your gut bacteria

(Don’t worry, not the nasty ones.)

Recent research suggests that consuming some sugar alcohols might nudge your gut microbiota (the balance of bacteria in your stomach) toward Bifidobacteria. These microbes may provide a range of benefits, so having a higher concentration of them in your gut could be great.

But it’s important to note that these possible benefits haven’t been replicated in people with digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

More research is needed to understand the different ways that sugar alcohols may affect the microbiome. But this is a promising start.

Are sugar alcohols bad for you? No — they can sometimes be a good alternative to sugar. But they’re not perfect, and it’s still not a good idea to eat tons and tons of them. Here’s why:

They can cause digestive issues

Because sugar alcohols aren’t completely absorbed by the intestines, they tend to cause gas, cramping, and diarrhea — especially if you eat a lot of them or if you have irritable bowel syndrome.

Sugar alcohols can also cause symptoms in people who have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) due to their laxative and gas-promoting effects.

Foods made with sugar alcohols aren’t necessarily “healthy”

Sorry, folks. Making a cake using sugar alcohol doesn’t magically reduce the calories in the butter.

Baked goods and desserts made with sugar alcohols can still contain ingredients like refined flour, cream, and butter. So a pint of ice cream made with sugar alcohols is far from calorie-free.

Sugar alcohols don’t make food carb-free

Sugar alcohols are a type of carb. So if you eat a lot of them, they can still bump up your carb count and mess around with your blood sugar.

If you have diabetes, you’ll need to limit your sugar alcohol intake. And if you’re on a keto diet, you might want to steer clear of sugar alcohols altogether.

But sugar alcohols have much less of an impact on blood sugar than traditional sweeteners like table sugar do.

For example, for people with diabetes who are counting carbs, it’s recommended that only half of the grams of carbs from sugar alcohols found in a food be added to their total amount of carbs.

(The one exception is the sugar alcohol erythritol, which contains close to zero net carbs and doesn’t raise blood sugar.)

Xylitol is toxic to doggos

Yeah, this is a less fun effect of one particular sugar alcohol. 😔

While human bodies are adept at processing xylitol, research from 2012 suggests that dogs’ bodies seem to think xylitol is sugar and start churning out insulin. This pulls sugar from their bloodstreams and could lead to a fatal bout of low blood sugar.

So, if you buy xylitol or products that contain it, make sure it’s way out of your puppers’ reach. They’re a gift from the universe.

There are several types of sugar alcohols, and they’re all different in terms of sweetness and possible side effects. Here’s a quick overview of the options:


  • Comes from: fruits and vegetables (but usually made from corn syrup)
  • Used in: sugar-free candies, chewing gums, frozen desserts, baked goods
  • Calorie count: 2.6 calories per gram
  • Sweetness level: 50 to 70 percent as sweet as sugar
  • Possible side effects: diarrhea (especially if you consume more than 50 grams)


  • Comes from: corn or wheat
  • Used in: low calorie foods (especially low cal ice creams, as a sweetener that also adds bulk)
  • Calorie count: 0 to 0.2 calories per gram
  • Sweetness level: 60 to 80 percent as sweet as sugar
  • Possible side effects: nausea or stomach rumbling (if consumed in large amounts)


  • Comes from: corncobs, fruit, vegetables, mushrooms, some grains
  • Used in: low sugar or sugar-free chewing gum and candy, mouthwash, toothpaste, medicines
  • Calorie count: 2.4 calories per gram
  • Sweetness level: as sweet as sugar
  • Possible side effects: gas, bloating, diarrhea (if consumed in large amounts)

Warning: To repeat, xylitol is toxic to dogs, so keep it away from your pup.


  • Comes from: pineapple, sweet potatoes, olives, seaweed
  • Used in: chewing gum, some chocolate-flavored coatings
  • Calorie count: 1.6 calories per gram
  • Sweetness level: 50 to 70 percent as sweet as sugar
  • Possible side effects: bloating and diarrhea


  • Comes from: lactose (the sugar found in milk)
  • Used in: chocolate, cookies and cakes, candy, frozen desserts
  • Calorie count: 2 calories per gram
  • Sweetness level: 30 to 40 percent as sweet as sugar
  • Possible side effects: serious diarrhea (it’s used medically as a laxative)


  • Comes from: sucrose
  • Used in: hard candies and cough drops
  • Calorie count: 2 calories per gram
  • Sweetness level: 45 to 65 percent as sweet as sugar
  • Possible side effects: bloating, gas, diarrhea


  • Comes from: starch or corn syrup
  • Used in: hard candies, gum, chocolate, baked goods, ice cream
  • Calorie count: 2.1 calories per gram
  • Sweetness level: 75 percent as sweet as sugar
  • Possible side effects: diarrhea (especially if you consume more than 40 grams)

Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH)

  • Comes from: corn
  • Used in: candies, baked goods, mouthwash
  • Calorie count: 2.1 calories per gram
  • Sweetness level: 25 to 50 percent as sweet as sugar
  • Possible side effects: diarrhea (especially when consumed in large amounts)

Sugar alcohols and sugar are both types of carbohydrates, so they have some similarities. For starters, both taste sweet. Both also contain some calories and carbs, so they can affect blood sugar.

But sugar alcohols are significantly lower in calories and carbs than actual sugar.

On average, you’ll get around 2 calories per gram of sugar alcohol compared to 4 calories per gram of sugar. And because sugar alcohols are only partially absorbed by the body, they have a smaller effect on blood sugar than actual sugar.

Those characteristics can make sugar alcohols a good alternative to sugar if you have diabetes or you’re watching your carbs.

Just keep in mind that sugar alcohols (and foods made with them) aren’t carb- or calorie-free. They can still affect your blood sugar if you eat them in large amounts.

Unlike actual sugar, sugar alcohols can also cause gastrointestinal issues like bloating, gas, and diarrhea.

The bottom line? Sugar alcohols can be a healthier option, but they still have drawbacks, so you should eat them only in moderation. And if you live with diabetes or are watching your carbs, be sure to factor your sugar alcohol intake into your diet as a whole.

The great news about sugar alcohols is that many of them have a remarkably low glycemic index (GI).

This means they’re going to cause a much slower rise in blood sugar levels than sweeteners with a high GI — like, say, table sugar (known in fancyboi circles as sucrose), which has a GI of 65. Which is high. Because it is, well, pure sugar.

Many sugar alcohols, such as erythritol and mannitol, have a GI of 0.

Others, like xylitol and sorbitol, have GI scores of 13 and 9, respectively. This means that although they’re not the lowest-GI picks of the bunch, they’ll help you avoid blood sugar spikes way more effectively than adding sucrose to your coffee.

Only maltitol, with a heftier GI value of 35, risks significantly f*cking with your blood sugar.

This low GI wizardry means sugar alcohols can sub in for sugar when you need to keep an eye on your blood sugar levels due to metabolic syndrome, prediabetes, or diabetes.


Sugar alcohols are most commonly found in low sugar or no-sugar-added packaged foods. They might show up in things like:

  • baked goods
  • ice cream or frozen desserts
  • chewing gum
  • candy
  • chocolate

As for how you can spot them, the list of ingredients is a good place to start. Like other ingredients, sugar alcohols are listed right on the label — if an ingredient ends in “-ol,” there’s a good chance it’s a sugar alcohol.

Certain packaging labels can be a giveaway too. If something bills itself as “sugar-free” “low sugar,” or “no sugar added,” it likely contains sugar alcohols.

Sugar alcohols can be a low cal, low carb alternative to actual sugar. They also have a minimal effect on blood sugar.

These sweeteners can be a good option if you have diabetes, are on a low carb diet, or are just trying to watch your sugar intake. But it’s possible to overdo it on sugar alcohols, so consume them in moderation.

And for goodness’ sake, remember to keep xylitol away from your dog. Thanks!

We put together a rundown of the carbs in drinkable alcohol. Learn more.