What are sugar alcohols and how to account for them?
If you’ve ever eaten a protein bar or anything else that contained a sugar alternative to sweeten the taste of the food, you’ve no doubt at some point turned over to the back of the packet and looked at the nutrition panel, and noticed the name “sugar alcohols” listed as a sub-group in the carbohydrate section and thought to yourself, “what are sugar alcohols?” Well, I can assure you, you are not alone, as sugar alcohols are a very commonly misunderstood nutrient and furthermore, a very common gap in nutritional knowledge in both fitness professionals and avid health enthusiasts alike.
Sugar alcohols (also known as polyols) are a funny little misnomer in the nutritional world, as they are neither sugar, nor alcohol. Their name is derived from their chemical structure, which is very similar to that of a sugar molecule, typically containing a 5 or 6 carbon chain, whilst also containing multiple hydroxyl (alcohol) groups attached to that chain. So, if you abstain from the consumption of alcohol or you do not want to consume high amounts of sugar in your diet, then you need to have no concerns about consuming foods containing sugar alcohols.
There is more than one type of sugar alcohol that can be added to foods, and depending upon which sugar alcohol is used, they can have varying caloric values. A general rule of thumb is that sugar alcohols contains 1.5-3 calories per gram, however that is an approximation, and there are sugar alcohols that do contain more/less than 1.5-3 calories per gram. This can make tracking your macronutrient/caloric intake slightly more difficult than it traditionally is when accounting for a complex carbohydrate or sugar. To overcome this dilemma, people will typically treat sugar alcohols as if they contain 2 calories per gram, to provide them with an averaged reference point.
For example, if a food item was to contain 20 grams of carbohydrates: consisting of 5 grams complex carbohydrate, 8 grams of sugar, and 7 grams sugar alcohols; you would account for the sugar alcohols by multiplying 7 by 2, providing an approximate 14 calories, and then add that number to the 52 calories that are subsequently provided by the complex carbohydrates and sugars (both complex carbohydrates and sugars contain 4 calories per gram), providing a total sum of 66 calories derived from the carbohydrates.
Although somewhat foreign and misunderstood, sugar alcohols are a simple enough concept to wrap one’s head around, when approached with a broad stroke. It is of course possible to account for them with precision, however that does take a deeper understanding of nutritional science than most of the population will have, as it requires knowledge on each sugar alcohol and their exact calorie content. For this purpose, it is recommended that the general fitness enthusiast treat sugar alcohols with an averaged value, typically 2 calories per gram, and adjust accordingly if need be.