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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 food, and they can be a legit healthy alternative if you’re trying to watch your sugar intake. But they come with some downsides that you definitely want to consider.

Here’s what you should know about the ingredient, what makes it different from actual sugar, and how much is OK to eat.

Nice try, but no.

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

Sugar alcohols occur naturally in fruits, vegetables, and even some grains, so they can be derived from plants. However, 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 have 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. Per gram, sugar alcohols contain 1.5 to 3 calories compared to sugar’s 4 calories. That means baked good and other foods that swap in sugar alcohols for actual sugar might be lower in calories.
  • 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.
  • They won’t wreck your teeth. Sugar alcohols don’t promote tooth decay like actual sugar does. That’s why they’re often used in chewing gums and some candies.

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 stomach problems. Because sugar alcohols are incompletely absorbed by the intestine, they tend to cause gas, cramping, and diarrhea — especially if you eat a lot of them, or if you have irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Foods made with sugar alcohols aren’t necessarily “healthy” and don’t automatically have less calories. Baked goods and desserts made with sugar alcohols can still contain other ingredients like refined flour, cream, or butter. So a cake or pint of ice cream made with sugar alcohols is far from calorie-free.
  • Foods made with sugar alcohols still contain some carbs. Sugar alcohols are a type of carb. So if you eat a lot of them, they can still up your carb count and affect your blood sugar.

    People with diabetes still need to limit their sugar alcohol intake, and if you’re on a keto diet, you might want to steer clear of sugar alcohols altogether. (The one exception is the sugar alcohol erythritol, which contains close to zero net carbs and doesn’t raise blood sugar.)

There are a bunch of different types of sugar alcohols out there, and each one is a little different in terms of sweetness and the ability to cause side effects. Here’s a quick overview of the options:

Sorbitol

  • 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 have more than 50 grams)

Erythritol

  • 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 in large doses

Xylitol

  • Comes from: corncobs, fruit, vegetables, mushrooms, some grains
  • Used in: low- or no-sugar 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 (in large doses)

Warning: Xylitol is toxic to dogs, so keep it away from your pup.

Mannitol

  • 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

Lactitol

  • 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)

Isomalt

  • 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

Malitol

  • 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 have more than 20 grams)

Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH)

  • Comes from: corn
  • Used in: candies, baked goods, mouthwashes
  • Calorie count: 3 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 have a sweet taste. They also contain some calories and carbs, so they can both have an effect on 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 better 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 quantities. Unlike actual sugar, sugar alcohols can also cause GI issues like bloating, gas, and diarrhea.

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

Sugar alcohols are most commonly found in low- or no-sugar 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 added sugar,” there’s a chance it might contain sugar alcohols.

Sugar alcohols can be a low-cal, low-carb alternative to actual sugar. They also have a minimal effect on blood sugar. Altogether the sweeteners can be a good option if you have diabetes, are on a low-carb diet, or are just trying to watch your weight. But it’s possible to overdo it, so stick to having sugar alcohols in moderation.