Sugar Alcohol Smack Down

By: Amy Kubal MS, RDN, LN

So yeah, ketogenic (keto) and super low carb diets are kind of a big deal right now. Seriously, you can barely go 15 minutes without hearing or seeing something about MCT oil, “Bulletproof” something, ‘fat bombs’ or “net carbs” and just like every other diet trend (yeah, I called it a trend – deal with it) we’re on a mission to make it something it’s not and probably shouldn’t be.

Remember the whole low fat and fat-free craze that swept through in the 1990’s? It started out as a not so terrible idea – lean meats, lots of vegetables, fruits and healthy carbs (yes, they really do exist!!). Yeah, I know, “fat’s not bad”, but if done correctly, the super low-fat thing – well, it works too (yes, I said that and yes I am right – don’t argue).

It all started going wrong with the appearance of reduced fat Oreos, Snackwell’s cookies, fat-free ice cream, cheese, potato chips, etc. and recipes to “de-fat” all your old favorites – brownies, pizza, cookies, cake, pie, etc. What they did here was they started replacing the fat (read: flavor) with more salt and sugar or they just invented new ingredients – remember “Olestra”?  If you don’t just Google it and all the “crappy” details will come back to you…

Well folks, we’re doing it again but this time with super low carb keto diets. Sugar alcohols are the new Olestra and let’s just say that things are getting all kinds of out of hand.

All those fancy “healthy” keto/low carb ice creams, protein bars, cookies, and dessert recipes that are showing up with super awesome nutrition claims like – “only 2 grams of net carbs”, “no sugar”, etc. – you can thank sugar alcohols for them. Have you ever stopped to wonder how something that tastes like dessert can be sugar-free and super low carb? I mean, sugar is a CARB – and anything that tastes sweet is going to have… you guessed it – sugar or some sort of artificial sweetener – and in this “clean eating” crowd, heaven forbid anything be made with aspartame, sucralose, or any other chemical $hit storm sweeteners. Seriously doesn’t everyone know that those things cause cancer in lab rats?

But of course we’ve found a loophole solution and that’s where sugar alcohols come in. The keto crowd would have you believe that these sweeties are totally okay because they’re closer to ‘natural’. I mean, you can find them in small quantities in berries and fruits and everything. Well, let’s just turn this bus around for a second because I can pretty much give you a money back guarantee that the sugar alcohols in your keto cookie, protein bar and ice cream aren’t being sourced from organic, non-GMO blueberries that were locally grown. Yeah, nope. Those bad boys are coming to you straight out of a laboratory or food ingredient manufacturing warehouse in some undisclosed location.

So what exactly is a sugar alcohol and why is this all such a big deal? Let’s start with the basics. A sugar alcohol is a reduced calorie (read: not calorie free) sweetener, but they are less calorically dense than regular sugar because the body can’t completely metabolize them. These magically delicious little chemical compounds are in fact, wait for it… CARBOHYDRATES. Yep, carbs people. Carbs. And contrary to popular belief, you can’t subtract the full amount of sugar alcohol grams from the total grams of “net carbs”. Nope, these bad boys aren’t ‘free’. You can only subtract HALF of the sugar alcohol grams from the total carbs, because yeah – THEY STILL COUNT (Gasp!). So if you’re baking up a batch of your famous coconut flour, erythritol laced, supposedly “only 1 gram of net carb” brownies, you may be biting of more net carbs than your keto diet can chew. That’s right, if you’re one of those keto protein bar, keto shake, keto ice cream, keto cookie, fat bomb popping diehards – you just might be ingesting enough sugar alcohol to effectively “kick you out of ketosis”. I’m not even joking here folks. Stranger things have happened.

If you’re confused as to what sweeteners are considered sugar alcohols, here’s a nice little list:

    • Erythritol
    • Isomalt
    • Xylitol
    • Sorbitol
    • Mannitol
    • Glycerol
    • Maltitol
    • Polydextrose
    • Lactitol

Another thing to note about any and all of these not so sweet little sugar subs is that they are in the polyol class of carbohydrates (the “P” in FODMAP). For those of you that have zero clue as to what that means, to put it simply –  folks that have issues with FODMAPs, IBS, IBD or any sort of digestive/intestinal “issues” are gonna have a bad time. That means bloating, gas, diarrhea… Even in people that say they have zero issues in the area of the intestines, too much sugar alcohol might result in a crappy ending (do the words ‘anal leakage’ mean anything to you??). Yeah, not so awesome for sure.

The moral of the story here is that in tiny doses, sugar alcohols might be okay – BUT let’s be real here for a minute – the foods that these things are in aren’t really keto-friendly at all. We’re doing exactly what the fat-free/low-fat diet followers of the 90’s did. EXACTLY THE SAME THING.

Seriously though, if you’re going to do this keto/low carb thing, that’s totally your decision but do it right. Stick with meats, low carb veggies and healthy fats – you know, like REAL FOOD. Let’s stop trying to make non-keto foods something they aren’t. If you want a treat, have a treat and if it’s got to be keto and have a little sugar alcohol in it, okay – BUT your diet shouldn’t be comprised of protein bars, keto shakes and fat bombs. If it is it may be time to reevaluate your purpose. If that purpose is to optimize your health – you are most definitely doing it wrong and that’s the bitter, sugar alcohol-free truth.

Amy is a Registered Dietitian with a strong background in Paleo, autoimmune, ketogenic, digestive and kidney health, athletic performance, eating disorder, weight loss, and figure/bodybuilding diet/nutrition consulting. She specializes in distance consulting and has a passion for helping others discover how powerful good nutrition can be.

You can read more of Amy’s work and learn more about her on her website – Trend Free RD.

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