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.

154 thoughts on “Beware of the Sugar Alcohol Maltitol

  1. The FDA Food Safety Division should re-evaluate and revise the warning labels on food products with maltitol. Example: Werther’s Original Sugar-Free candies (with maltitol and sorbitol). The package only warns of a possible “laxative” effect with “excessive consumption”. Excessive is not defined, and severe burping and foul gas is NOT part of a laxative effect. There is also no warning that these adverse effects can last for many days.

  2. I missed about 3 weeks of work after eating a box of Ricola Licorice hard candy (“Sweetened with Stevia”, but I have absolutely no problem with Stevia, which is why I bought them- to avoid the neurotoxin, aspartame, in other Ricola cough drops). Little did I know the main sweetener was malitol and I had no idea I’d end up in the bathroom for 4 hours in complete agony, with gas pains worse than menstrual cramping and my stomach bloated up like a beach ball. Oh, but it wasn’t over- I then broke out in hives, starting on my neck, then my face, chest, stomach, flank, back and then buttocks. I was itching so badly I couldn’t sleep at all- no antihistamine or Benadryl cream helped the burning and itching at all. I could hardly stand to wear clothes or even feel the sheets on the bed touch my skin (much less lie on the bright red, angry rash/hives). I’m so disappointed that this product I bought because it was advertised as being sweetened with Stevia, which I’ve used safely for a few decades, contained this toxic chemical malitol. I’m afraid to give the rest of the boxes away (I had to import 10 at a time, from the UK, since I don’t live near a Whole Foods, which is the only place in the US I’ve found to buy them in a retail store), so I’ll probably end up throwing this expensive mistake out. It’s cost me a lot- my health and wellbeing, plus 3 weeks of missing work, and seeing the doctor, plus expensive prescriptions for the rash that didn’t help. Thank you for this website and everyone else who has shared their stories, here. Now, I know I’m not alone.

  3. I was interested to browse these comments, as I have been reading up on sugar alcohols. It seems there are many in current usage and most have possible side effects if consumed uncautiously. So surely it’s all down to limiting or, better still, avoiding sweets, puddings, pies and such sweet treats altogether, especially if you already have dietary problems such as diabetes? There are so many delicious vegetables and fruits you can reward yourself with?

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