Sugar Alcohols

Written by Cyndi O'Meara

Cyndi is about educating. Her greatest love is to teach, both in the public arena and within the large corporate food companies, to enable everyone to make better choices so they too can enjoy greater health throughout their lives. Considered one of the world's foremost experts in Nutrition, Cyndi brings over 40 years experience, research and knowledge.
Time To Read: 7 minutes

March 10, 2021

Does the World Need so Many Sugars?

A recent monthly webinar with my students and graduates of The Nutrition Academy, was all about sugar. We covered lots of interesting information, so I thought I’d share it here.


Natural Sugars From History

There are many sweeteners on the market – in fact, sugar is known by 70 plus different names. The list seems endless, all the way from glucose to agave to white grape concentrate and beyond. There is a list at the end of this article, but it is still probably not complete.

The more savvy the consumer becomes, the more food manufacturers want to change how we perceive sugar. There is also, and has been for quite some time, a negative connotation with the word ‘sugar’, so there is an increase in sugar alcohols (polypols), artificial sweeteners, man-made sugar, synthetic-biology-made sugars and those simply made in a chemical laboratory.

There are natural sugars that humans have consumed for thousands of years. Honey is one of them. As well as eating meat, poultry and tubers, the Hadza Tribe in Tanzania also include honey as a big part of their diet.

Even sugar cane has a long 10,000 year plus history. It wasn’t until the mechanisation of sugar cane harvesting occurred in 1938 that it became abundant.  Sugar cane is a tropical grass that grows between 3 and 6 metres high, unlike sugar beet (which is now genetically modified and Roundup ready). It’s perennial, meaning it doesn’t need to be planted every year. When sugar cane is harvested it can be cut just above the root level so new sprouts will grow, ready to be harvested 10 to 12 months later. I have small amounts of sugar cane growing on the Changing Habits farm. It can be cut and chewed for a really sweet taste.

Eighty countries in the world now produce sugar. When I was driving north through Queensland last August I noticed an enormous amount of sugar crops and wondered why the world needed so much sugar. I know there are several uses including alcohol (rum), ethanol for fuel for cars, as a base for other sugars, to name a few.

Real, traditional maple syrup comes from the maple water/sap of the maple tree. The water is semi sweet when harvested but once it’s concentrated, the syrup shines through. Many maple syrups on the market are fake, with flavours, thickeners, sugars and colours.

Palm sugar, coconut sugar and coconut nectar have also become natural popular sweet commodities. I personally have chosen not to have it as part of the Changing Habits range due to the non-sustainability of the sugar. Using the nectar leads to a reduction in bees and the reduced production of the coconut, which becomes another tree. A small percentage of these sugars can be sustainable, but you will need to know where it comes from to be sure.

Unrefined cane sugars including rapadura, sucanat, panella and jaggary pilonicillo to name a few are minimally processed and they contain antioxidants, vitamin A, B1, B2, B6 and niacin. Just 1 tsp gives you 11% of the RDI for iron. Whereas beet sugars are now genetically modified and Roundup ready.

I’ve written an article on monk fruit and thaumatin – you can read it here. They are not my favourite sugars, nor are any of the artificial sugars on the market. I’ve written about them in my book Lab To Table.

I’ve also written an article on synthetic biology and stevia, which you can read here.  Natural stevia herb is very different to what you find in the white powder and liquids found in processed foods.


Alcohol Sugars

These sugars include erythritol, glycerol/glycerin, hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH) maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol and xylitol. They are seen in many processed foods. They are made in a chemical laboratory and are neither an alcohol (they don’t contain ethanol), nor a simple sugar, but rather a carbohydrate. Their natural counterparts like xylose and mannose can be found in food like blackberries, broccoli, spinach, green beans, okra, cabbage, turnips, shiitake mushrooms to name a few.

I’m a nature lover; I’m not one to trust what is done in a laboratory with our food supply. I would much rather use the natural sugars in their whole form and within food as a source of sugar, for not only energy in the body, but the important sugars that are required for cell communication, including xylose and mannose. You can read all about this in my book Lab To Table.

The most used sugar alcohols which can also be termed as polyols (that’s the P that you see in FODMAP) are xylitol and erythritol. I’ve seen them in processed foods, from protein powders and bars to chewing gum and toothpastes.


How Are They Made?

Xylitol can be extracted from the following:  birch and beach tree, oat hulls, corn cobs and stalks, coconut shells, almond shells, straw, bagasse and cotton seed hulls. The xylose is extracted using acid hydrolysis and purification, then among other steps, hydrogenation of the xylose makes a pure mixture of xylitol. I don’t know about you, but I can’t do this in my kitchen so I’m not sure I want it in my food supply. I’m also dubious about the fact that some of the things xylitol is made from is GM derived. I’m not prepared to support these industries, so I choose not to consume xylitol.


This polyol has become increasingly popular in industry. Chemically synthesising this sugar alcohol is complicated and commercial production is based on fermentation, using a fungi that produces erythritol when fed glucose. So, biotechnology has stepped in, genetically modifying a unicelled bacteria (synechocystic sp. PCC68o3).  By the use of photosynthesis, more erythritol can be made for the market and this ticks the box for optimising production. Another example of more synthetic biology to produce food additives.


Maltitol is prepared by the hydrogenation of maltose. Maltose comes from maltodextrin, maltodextrin comes from corn (GM), potato, wheat, tapioca and rice.  Each one of the extractions uses hydrolysis, enzymes and acids to break the starch into smaller pieces (partially hydrolyzed starch) – resulting in a white powder.


Mannitol is normally obtained by the hydrogenation of invert sugar. An invert sugar is a mix of glucose and fructose. It can also be made by microbiological methods using fructose, this is done by genetically modified microbes, synthetic biology. Mannitol can also be extracted from seaweed. The problem will be when you see mannitol on the ingredient list – how do you know which one will it be?

Long-term studies on all of these sugars are just not there. Once you know how they are made, then it’s up to you whether you will choose to consume them.


Glycemic Index vs Glycemic Load

Everyone has a different tolerance to carbohydrates and simple sugars. Many tout the glycemic index and glycemic load as good predictors.

The glycemic index is a numeric score given to a food based on how quickly it makes your blood sugar rise. Foods are ranked 0 to 100, with glucose given a value of 100. The lower the index, the slower the blood sugar rises after eating that particular food (usually foods with more fibre).

The glycemic load tells you not only how quickly the glucose enters the blood stream but how much glucose per serving it can deliver. For instance, watermelon has a GI of 80, but because in one serving of watermelon there is very little carbohydrate, it has a glycemic load of only 5.


Sugar Tolerance is Individual

Having said that, it is also a very individual pursuit (depending on the health of the person) and the time of day.  In the book The Circadian Code, Dr Panda points out that glucose and carbohydrate tolerance changes throughout the day.

Depending on where the individual is on their pursuit to health will depend on their tolerance to carbohydrates. Someone with insulin resistance, diabetes and/or metabolic disease will have less tolerance to carbohydrate than those that do not have pre-existing chronic disease.

I’m old fashioned. I’m happy to get back into the kitchen to feed and nourish my extended family to heal the burden of disease we now see in modern society. Using natural, old-fashioned sugars like honey, maple syrup and rapadura sugar is one of my tools.


List of Sugars
Basic Simple Sugars (monosaccharides and disaccharides):
  1. Dextrose
  2. Fructose
  3. Galactose
  4. Glucose
  5. Lactose
  6. Maltose
  7. Sucrose
Solid or Granulated Sugars:
  1. Barbados sugar
  2. Beet sugar
  3. Brown sugar
  4. Cane juice crystals
  5. Cane sugar
  6. Castor sugar
  7. Coconut sugar
  8. Confectioner’s sugar (aka, powdered sugar)
  9. Corn syrup solids
  10. Crystalline fructose
  11. Date sugar
  12. Demerara sugar
  13. Dextrin
  14. Diastatic malt
  15. Ethyl maltol
  16. Florida crystals
  17. Golden sugar
  18. Glucose syrup solids
  19. Grape sugar
  20. Icing sugar
  21. Jaggary
  22. Maltodextrin
  23. Muscovado sugar
  24. Panela sugar
  25. Rapadura
  26. Raw sugar
  27. Sugar (granulated or table)
  28. Sucanat
  29. Turbinado sugar
  30. Yellow sugar
Liquid or Syrup Sugars:
  1. Agave Nectar/Syrup
  2. Barley malt syrup
  3. Birch syrup
  4. Blackstrap molasses
  5. Brown rice syrup
  6. Buttered sugar/buttercream
  7. Cane Syrup
  8. Caramel
  9. Carob syrup
  10. Corn syrup
  11. Evaporated cane juice
  12. Fruit juice
  13. Fruit juice concentrate
  14. Golden syrup
  15. High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
  16. Honey
  17. Invert sugar
  18. Lucuma syrup
  19. Malt syrup
  20. Maple syrup
  21. Molasses
  22. Oat syrup
  23. Rice Bran syrup
  24. Rice Malt syrup
  25. Refiner’s syrup
  26. Sorghum syrup
  27. Tapioca
  28. Treacle
  29. Yacon syrup
Alcohol Sugars
  1. Erythritol
  2. Glycerol/glycerin
  3. Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH)
  4. Maltitol
  5. Mannitol
  6. Sorbitol
  7. Xylitol

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