Sugar Alcohols: What are they?
Sugars are naturally occurring substances found in fruits, vegetables, grains and other foods. Sugars have no calories or nutritional value but their chemical structure allows them to be used as sweeteners. Sugary drinks such as fruit juices, sports drinks and energy drinks contain high amounts of sugars because these beverages usually contain little to no nutrients. These drinks are often marketed as “low calorie” alternatives to regular soft drinks.
The term ‘sugar’ refers to any one of several different types of carbohydrates (carbohydrates) with varying caloric values. For example, table sugar contains 50% glucose and 50% fructose; while brown sugar contains 55% glucose and 45% fructose.
In general, sugars are classified into two groups: monosaccharides and disaccharides. Monosaccharides include glucose, fructose, galactose and mannose.
Disaccharides include sucrose (table sugar), lactose (milk sugar) and trehalose (dried fruit).
Monosaccharide carbohydrates can be broken down into simple sugars through enzymatic processes called polymers. These simple sugars can then be absorbed by the body during digestion.
On the other hand, disaccharide carbohydrates (such as sucrose) cannot be broken down by the body and must first be broken down into monosaccharides before they can be absorbed. This process is called hydrolysis and involves the addition of water to the chemical bonds of the carbohydrates.
The addition of water splits the disaccharide into simpler sugars that the body can absorb.
Sugar alcohol is a type of sugar that has been chemically altered so that it lacks the negative effects that normal sugars have on the body. Sugar alcohols are neither sugar nor alcohol and do not contribute to dental decay or cause intoxication.
Sugar alcohols were first discovered in the 19th century when a German chemist discovered an easy method for converting glucose into sorbitol. Since then, sugar alcohols have been used as a replacement for normal table sugar.
Sugar alcohols have between a third and half the calories of normal table sugar.
The most commonly used types of sugar alcohols are xylitol, erythritol, lactitol, maltitol and isomalt. The most commonly used sugar alcohol is xylitol, which has powerful anti-bacterial effects that prevent tooth decay.
Sugar alcohols are often used as an alternative to normal table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. They can be used to sweeten foods and drinks because they have a bitter aftertaste, which is reduced when used in combination with other sweeteners.
Listed below are some of the main types of sugar alcohols used:
It is found naturally in fruits such as pears, mushrooms and watermelons. It can also be produced using a fermentation process similar to that used to produce wine and beer.
Erythritol is around 70% as sweet as table sugar and has zero calories. It does not affect blood sugar and is non-carcinogenic. Erythritol can be used in baking as a direct replacement for table sugar.
It is found naturally in the fibers of various plants such as berries, mushrooms, oats, corncobs and lettuce. It is also produced commercially from these sources using chemical and biological processes.
Xylitol is around 90% as sweet as table sugar but it has 40% of the calories. It is non-carcinogenic and does not cause tooth decay. It has a distinct taste that can be described as being similar to corn syrup.
It is found naturally in various berries, mushrooms and lettuce. It is commercially produced by hydrogenating lactose (milk sugar).
Similar to xylitol, it is around 90% as sweet as table sugar but it has 40% of the calories. Lactitol does not cause tooth decay and it is suitable for diabetics. It can be used in the same way as xylitol or as a direct replacement for table sugar.
It is found naturally in cranberries, mushrooms, raspberries and lettuce. It is commercially produced using a chemical process that converts cornstarch into glucose.
It is 60-70% as sweet as table sugar with around 30% of the calories. It does not cause tooth decay and it is suitable for diabetics. Mannitol has a mild flavor and can be used in baking as a direct replacement for table sugar.
It is naturally occurring in pears, apples, plums, peaches, cauliflowers and mushrooms. It is commercially produced by converting glucose from starch using a fermentation process.
Sorbitol is 60% as sweet as table sugar with around 20% of the calories. It does not cause tooth decay and it suitable for diabetics. It can be used in baking as a direct replacement for table sugar.
Also known as ‘natural sweetners’, these are a group of sweeteners that occur naturally in various fruits and vegetables. A few such as glycerol and xylitol are classified as sugar alcohols, while others such as erythritol, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol and sorbitol are classified as sugar substitutes.
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