Health snacks and alternative ingredients are increasingly abundant in our world, as people become more concerned with what goes into their bodies. But food labels are trickier to read than ever before, as food manufacturers find new sugar substitutes and sweeteners to make their products taste better. Sugar alcohols are a great example.

Many products seem healthy at first glance, with zero sugars. But then there is an additional label for sugar alcohols, and there are a ton of them. What are sugar alcohols?

The Structure of a Sugar Molecule, Versus the Structure of Other Sweeteners

A sugar molecule is a chain of six carbons, lined in rows of two. When the GI tract encounters a molecule with a set of six carbons aligned like this, it know to absorb the molecule. The top of the sugar molecule is different than the bottom of the molecule, however. The GI tract has types of doors or receptors that recognize the top of the molecule, and different receptors that recognize the bottom of the molecule.

Watch Dr. Rader’s video for further explanation.

Artificial sugar is modified so that one carbon in the sugar chain is modified, so the sets of six on top and bottom are no longer uniform. The body does not recognize this modified sugar as something to absorb. There is no receptor in the GI tract for a molecule with this structure.

Sugar alcohols are also modified sugars, but only the top of one carbon in the chain is modified. There is an alcohol group placed on the top of one of the carbons. The other side of the sugar molecule remains identical to a normal simple sugar molecule, and the GI tract has receptors that recognize and absorb the sugar alcohols.

So the body digests sugar alcohols, which is why you should always be careful when consuming them. They should be included in the count for those keeping track of carbohydrate consumption. They will raise your blood sugar levels.

Where are they found?

Sugar alcohols come in a few varieties, like maltitol and xylitol. They are found in bars, ice creams, cookies, candies, chewing gum and more.