Aug. 31, 2004

Beware of the Sugar Alcohol Maltitol

As food companies try to lower the sugar content of their foods, they’ll try just about anything. In addition to the usual white-flour-to-soy-flour conversion, sugar is often taken out and replaced with a sugar alcohol. The name is a bit misleading as it’s neither a sugar nor an alcohol; rather, its chemical structure is merely similar to sugars and alcohols.

And, food companies generally subtract food alcohols from the “carb count” on the back of the package as they reason that sugar alcohols have a negligible effect on blood sugar levels. But, is that really the case? To find out, I searched for the glycemic values for various sugar alcohols. For those not aware, the Glycemic Index is a measure of a food’s effect on blood sugar levels. The scale is set up so that sugar has a value of 100. But, that’s not to say that foods can’t exceed 100 — potatoes can reach into the 150s, for example.

While a glycemic value of zero would truly represent a food which has “no effect” on blood sugar levels, that’s not to say that any effect is bad. Really, it’s the spikes in blood sugar levels brought on by foods with high glycemic values which cause mischief. Getting back to the sugar alcohols, I discovered that many of them aren’t that low:

  • Maltitol syrup, intermediate: 53
  • Maltitol syrup, regular: 52
  • Maltitol syrup, high: 48
  • Polyglycitol / hydrogenated starch hydrolysate: 39
  • Maltitol syrup, high-polymer: 36
  • Maltitol: 36
  • Xylitol: 13
  • Isomalt: 9
  • Sorbitol: 9
  • Lactitol: 6
  • Erythritol: 0
  • Mannitol: 0
Obviously, maltitol and its variants stick out. But, how bad is it? For comparison, corn syrup (a sugar derived from corn) is around 85-92. Sure, maltitol is lower than that, but it’s not that far off. As a rule of thumb, a glycemic value in the 40s (or below) is considered low. But maltitol syrup (53) is almost at the level of new potatoes (57).

So, which sugar alcohols are used commonly? Speakingly only anecdotally — from my recollections of food labels at my local Target — maltitol seems to be the sugar alcohol of choice for many manufacturers. I think we’d all like to find some double chocolate chip cookies make with erythritol (with its zero glycemic value), but I’ve never actually seen erythritol on any ingredient label :-/.

It may initially seem confusing to have all these sugar alcohols and glycemic values to remember — especially since so many food manufacturers liken all of them to having a minimal effect. But, just keep in mind these two: maltitol (36-53, depending on variant) and polyglycitol (also called “hydrogenated starch hydrolysate”, at 39). If you steer clear of those, the rest shouldn’t be an issue — the next-highest sugar alcohol is xylitol and that only has a glycemic value of 13.

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