Common Sweeteners in Reduced Carb Products

You may have noticed some unfamiliar ingredients, such as Maltitol, appearing in the ingredient list of many lower carb products. Long used in Europe, Maltitol is one of the more popular low-calorie sugar substitutes called sugar alcohols, all of which vary in their calories and level of sweetness. Other common ones are sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol.

But don’t let the name fool you – they are neither sugar nor alcohol. They're derived from sugar but resemble alcohol in chemical construction.

Advantages of sugar alcohol sweeteners

Sugar alcohols, also known as polyols, occur naturally in foods and come from plant products such as fruit, berries and grains. They are often used as sweeteners in food products or in combination with artificial sweeteners.

The main benefits to using sugar alcohol sweeteners is that:

  • they satisfy the sweet tooth
  • are lower in calories than sugar
  • have no aftertaste
  • do not promote tooth decay
  • are absorbed and digested more slowly than sugar
  • are not completely metabolized
  • have minimal impact on blood sugar

How sweet it is

Maltitol is commonly used in lower carb products, including Nutribar Lifestyle and Lite-on-Carbs, because it has fewer calories than regular sugar – 3 calories per gram compared to 4 calories in sugar -- and it is sweeter than most other sugar alcohols.

Derived from maltose corn syrup, Maltitol has roughly 90% of the sweetness of sugar, compared to sorbitol at 60% relative sweetness. That means more sweetening power, with fewer calories from carbohydrates. Since sugar alcohols are not as sweet as sugar, they are sometimes combined with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame or sucralose to raise sweetness levels without increasing calories.

The presence of sugar alcohols in a food product makes it difficult to calculate the percentage energy from carbohydrates on food labels. However, the total carbohydrate content will be shown, and this can be used to determine where the food product fits into an overall meal plan.

Since sugar alcohols have such negligible effect on blood sugar, they are usually subtracted from the total grams of carbohydrates when determining net carbs.

Everything in Moderation

Consuming too much Maltitol does have its side effects: It can result in diarrhea, gas and bloating. This often depends upon the individual’s sensitivity to it, much like one's sensitivity to beans or garlic, and the quantity consumed. The average person would have to consume 90-100 grams of Maltitol per day to experience this laxative effect yet many low carb products contain less than 4 grams of Maltitol per serving.

Most people adapt to Maltitol after a few days, just as they adapt to an increase in fibre consumption.

A costlier alternative

The use of sugar alcohols, however, can affect what consumers pay for products containing them. Sugar alcohols cost food processors anywhere from 2 to 5 times more than table sugar. Maltitol is one of the more expensive ones.

That, coupled with the increased protein in these products, makes the final product more costly than the regular versions.

Maltitol vs. artificial sweeteners

As a sugar replacer, Maltitol falls into the category of nutritive sweeteners.

The ones popularly used by consumers are called non-nutritive or artificial sweeteners.

Food developers often combine Maltitol with these high-intensity sugar substitutes to increase sweetness without adding calories. Sucralose (such as Splenda brand) is one of the well known ones, as are Aspartame (Equal brand) and Cyclamate (Sugar Twin or Sweet 'n Low). Any of these may be found in low-carb products. A popular one used in diet sodas along with aspartame is Acesulfame-K, which is only available for commercial use in North America at this point. A little bit goes a long way!

Unlike Maltitol, which provides significantly less energy than sugar, substitute sweeteners such as Sucralose provide no energy whatsoever and zero calories.

Aside from adding bulk – not just sweetness – sugar alcohols are more versatile than artificial sweeteners. They add flavour and texture, thicken and keep foods moist for longer periods of time, and can be used as stabilizers.

Sugar alcohols also have the added health benefit of not contributing to the formation of cavities.