When something seems too good to be true, it’s usually because it is. Kind of like getting an email offering you a piece of a large inheritance from a Nigerian prince. Ehh.. that one is probably not true.
What about zero calorie foods and beverages? Are those too good to be true, or are sugar alcohols a perfectly safe and healthy way to get your sweet fix without the calories?
Let’s dive in.
So what kind of magic is going on that makes it possible for some foods and beverages to have zero calories? Well, the first thing you have to keep in mind here is that the FDA actually allows manufacturers to label anything with less than 5 calories as having zero calories.
Confusing, but true. Take a packet of Splenda for example. Splenda is labeled as a zero-calorie sweetener, but in reality it has 3.4 calories per packet. Another example is cooking oil sprays. These will often list that a serving has zero calories, but if you absolutely cover your pan with 3 or 4 servings worth of that cooking oil, you are most definitely adding calories to your meal.
In the world of food labels in America, 0 x 4 = 12… sometimes…
I know. It’s confusing, but all you need to know is that just because a food label says zero calories does not necessarily mean that the food has zero calories. All that means is that a single serving of that food has less than 5 calories. Aside from water, no food or beverage can actually have zero calories.
Now that we have that covered, let’s talk about the sweeteners that are used in a lot of these low and “zero” calorie foods and beverages. Sugar alcohols, also known as polyols, are often used by food manufactures for this precise purpose.
Sugar alcohols are a type of carbohydrate that are structurally similar to both sugars and alcohols (hence the name). However, they obviously do not impact the body the way alcohol does. No one is getting tipsy off of diet cokes and keto cookies (as fun as that sounds).
While most added sugar alcohols are manufactured, some like erythritol and sorbitol are also found in small amounts in some fruits and vegetables. These sugar alcohols usually have between 1.5–3 calories per gram, making them a lower calorie alternative to sugar (4 calories per gram).
But are they a healthier alternative? Or is it too good to be true?
Well, like with most things nutrition related, we don’t really have a super simple answer to that question. When you eat conventional sugar, it is broken down into glucose and absorbed into the bloodstream. This leads to a rise in blood sugar levels and a corresponding release of insulin. Over time, these spikes in blood sugar and insulin releases are no good.
Sugar alcohols, on the other hand, pass through the gastrointestinal tract largely intact and are usually fermented by gut bacteria in the large intestine. This is good since it means you could enjoy some sweets without having to worry about the spike in blood sugar, but it does mean that it can cause bloating and digestive discomfort instead. That’s no good, either.
The key takeaway? It is probably best to minimize your consumption of both sugar and sugar alcohols, but I get it. No one wants to completely cut out sweets, so which option is best?
It seems that for the most part, sugar alcohols used in moderation can be a safe, low calorie alternative to conventional sugar. Now, if it is causing digestive discomfort, that is obviously your body telling you that sugar alcohols might not be the best idea, so listen to your body if that is the case.
A better alternative is to look for products that use a natural alternative sweetener such as monk fruit. This may not be as low calorie as sugar alcohols, but it is less likely to cause digestive issues. But even with these natural alternatives, moderation is always important.