Products Packed With Sugar Alcohol Might Not Be the Best Option for Cyclists Looking to Fuel a Workout

·5 min read
Photo credit: Ben Harding - Getty Images
Photo credit: Ben Harding - Getty Images


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Sugar alcohol is commonly found in processed foods and beverages, yet very few of us know they exist. And likely even fewer of us can actually answer, “What is a sugar alcohol?” or “Are sugar alcohols unhealthy?”

So, to address those questions, we spoke with two registered dietitians to find out everything there is to know about sugar alcohols. As it turns out, if you’re a cyclist looking to fuel your workout, then eating products packed with sugar alcohols before or during a ride might not be the best option for you. Read on for why.

First, what are sugar alcohols?

The answer is complicated, says Melissa Majumdar, M.S., R.D., bariatric coordinator at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. “Sugar alcohol is actually not a sugar and it’s not an alcohol,” she tells Bicycling. Sugar alcohols, Majumdar explains, are a derivative of sugar with the addition of a hydrogen and oxygen molecule, but in essence it’s not the sweet stuff we know.

It’s not like the alcohol you’re used to either, she says, because it doesn’t contain ethanol which is found in rubbing alcohol and alcoholic beverages, but it is a part of the alcohol family. “It’s the same type of chemical structure within the same hydrogen group, but the rest of the chemical structure is very different,” Majumdar says.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that you’ll find naturally in fruits and vegetables—like berries and cabbage—but in small amounts. The Sugar Trading Manual, highlights these chemicals for use in sugar-free and no-sugar-added products, because they have fewer calories than sugar and can bulk up the volume and texture of low-calorie products. According to the University of Michigan Health sugar alcohols are also commonly used to sweeten these low-calorie foods.

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How do you know if sugar alcohols are in your food?

When you’re looking at a food label and you see the words “diet,” “sugar-free,” or “no sugar added,” that typically means it contains sugar alcohols, Tami Ross, registered dietitian, certified diabetes care and education specialist, and co-author of What Do I Eat Now?’ tells Bicycling. But you can also easily spot sugar alcohols in a product by looking at the ingredient list and searching for words ending in -ol like in alcohol, Ross says. The most common sugar alcohols found in products today are xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, and maltitol according to the Cleveland Clinic.

According to the FDA, you can find sugar alcohols in a wide variety of products from foods and beverages to dental products (likely because they don’t cause cavities like regular sugar can). More specifically, Ross says sugar-free foods like candies, ice creams, chewing gum, spreads, and jelly products will most likely contain sugar alcohols.

Are sugar alcohols unhealthy?

For years researchers have studied the benefits of using sugar alcohols in various products as a potentially healthy alternative to sugar and in hopes that it could manage health conditions like diabetes and obesity.

A 2015 review published in the journal European Food and Research Technology noted that sugar alcohols are lower in calories than sugar, some may not contribute to tooth decay like sugar, and they don’t cause a sudden increase in blood sugars, which is a main indicator of diabetes.

In comparison to regular sugar, most sugar alcohols have about half the carbohydrates and calorie contents, says Ross. “[Sugar alcohols] are used to reduce carbohydrates for folks that may have diabetes—those that are trying to reduce their blood sugar—and they’re used to reduce calories in sweetened foods,” she says. For people living with diabetes, it's important to remember sugar-free doesn't mean carb-free, Ross says, pay attention to the labels and check for other carbs in the product.

In many ways, the benefits of sugar alcohols are unique to the individual. For instance, sugar alcohols can be beneficial to people seeking to lose weight because they tend to have fewer calories. But there’s a catch: “It’s not like it’s a freebie and you can eat all you want of it,” Ross says.

No matter what your goal is, you should always consult with a health care professional or registered dietitian to ensure you’re properly fueling your lifestyle before adding products with sugar alcohols. That’s especially important if you’re cycling with diabetes or interested in doing so. Majumdar says consulting with a nutritionist is the best way to manage diabetes while cycling as your blood sugar needs will vary depending on your type of the condition.

How can sugar alcohols impact your next ride?

For cyclists in general, lasting energy on the bike comes down to one thing: carbohydrate intake. It’s important to ensure your diet is packed with the nutrients you need to sustain your ride—and that includes carbs.

So it isn’t really ideal to cut back on carbs by turning to more sugar alcohols instead of the regular sweet stuff before a workout or even during a ride. “Carbohydrates are the bodies quickest form of energy, so I would guide somebody away from sugar alcohols because it’s actually going to provide less carbohydrates than something that doesn’t use a sugar alcohol.” Majumdar says.

If you overeat products with sugar alcohols, according to the University of Michigan Health, it can also cause bloating—which you don’t want to deal with on the bike. Cyclists should be aware that sugar alcohols can have a laxative effect, Majumdar says, as the chemical is not easy to digest and can cause some gastrointestinal upset and potentially diarrhea depending on the amount you consume. For some people, Ross says, “even chewing sugar-free gum will really give them that GI upset.”

You don’t have to toss all your sugar-free products right away though. Both Ross and Majumdar recommend trying them out before you hit the road to see how your body responds.

The bottom line: Most of the time, the best thing to eat is whole foods—fruits, veggies, whole grains. If you go for these foods you don’t have to worry about sugar alcohols. “I would rather guide someone to more food from the ground if possible,” Majumdar says, “But during a ride we often will rely on more processed foods just because they’re easier to carry.” And for that, a little sugar alcohol is perfectly okay.

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