Sugar alcohols are popping up in all kinds of processed foods, from protein bars to kids’ snacks. Dentists recommend them as alternatives to sugary gums and candies, and they are marketed as “natural.” So as a parent you may be wondering, are sugar alcohols safe for kids?
What are sugar alcohols, and why are they so popular?
Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates, but technically not sugar nor alcohol. They have a similar structure to sugar, which is why our taste buds recognize them as sweet. The difference is at least one alcohol group in the chemical composition, which is why they are called sugar alcohol, or polyols as they are known to chemists.
Sugar alcohols occur in nature in minimal amounts. While they have been around for a long time, they are just now showing up more in our food due to several factors.
First, sugar is the in the hot seat right now, replacing fats as the bad guy. In the late 1970s, reports came out that fats were bad for our health and there was a sweeping change to decrease fat in the American diet. Instead of fat, food was loaded up with sugar; average sugar consumption increased substantially between 1980 and 2000.
Instead of people getting healthier, however, people got more sick and unhealthy. Experts point to the increase in sugar consumption as the cause of the obesity epidemic and the rise in other chronic diseases. Sugar is now the new villain – in recent years, sugar consumption has dropped slightly due to this shift in mindset.
While the decrease in sugar consumption is a step in the right direction, we are instead turning to sugar substitutes like sugar alcohols to make things sweet while using less actual sugar. This has also lead to changes in the dietary food labels overseen by the FDA.
These new regulations are the second reason sugar alcohols are becoming more popular. For a more detailed description of how the new labels will impact the addition of sugar alcohols, see my video “What Are Sugar Alcohols?”
Are sugar alcohols safe?
There are many different sugar alcohols, the most common being xylitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, and erythritol (notice how most sugar alcohols have -ol at the end of their name. This is an efficient way to find them in the ingredient list). Any sugar alcohol used in food is approved by the FDA based on the evidence available. This means that manufacturers who make or want to use these substances have provided proof that to the best of their knowledge, sugar alcohols pose no known health risk.
There are known side effects, though. Since the carbohydrate is chemically different from regular sugars, the body is not equipped to digest most of these sugar alcohols. This means much of the molecule ends up in the gut, which causes digestive issues like gas, bloating, and diarrhea. This is particularly true for sensitive individuals but can happen to anyone if they consume too much sugar alcohol.
Many studies are being done to examine how sugar substitutes like sugar alcohols affect the gut microbiome, and early evidence shows that sugar alcohols may alter gut bacteria. No long term studies are available to confirm if long term exposure to sugar alcohols is safe, especially for children. So, while the FDA has approved sugar alcohols for use in our food, the safety of adding this to our food supply in such a large quantity is unknown.
Red flag – Should our kids eat sugar alcohols?
There is one fact in particular that parents should be aware of when evaluating if sugar alcohol is safe for kids.
Sugar alcohols are not common in natural foods. Sugar alcohols that are added to our food are made in a lab, taking a sugar molecule and running it through a chemical process to add the alcohol groups. So this “natural” sugar substitute does not come from natural sources. And while I am a fan of “better living through chemistry”, I do not believe nutritious food is made in a lab.
Our children grow so quickly that they need a high quality, whole food diet to grow into healthy adults. The less processed foods they eat, the healthier they will be. A menu full of healthy, natural foods does not contain sugar alcohols – so why would we feed them a processed food product full of chemicals they clearly don’t need?
For ideas to get your kids to eat healthier foods and like them, see our article Eating Healthy this New Year? How to Get your Kids on Board.