ALL ABOUT SUGAR ALCOHOLS (MALTITOL, SORBITOL, ISOMALT , etc..)
These sweeteners are neither sugars, nor alcohols, but they are carbohydrates nonetheless. They are sometimes called POLYOLS, to avoid confusion. At the present time, they have not been legally classified for product labelling purposes, as are sugars, starch and fiber. So, some manufacturers are choosing to omit them from the total carb count in the nutrient data panel of the label (they MUST however declare the amount of sugar alcohol in the ingredient list). Because they aren't actually SUGAR, products that contain them may use the term "sugar free" on the label. Some manufacturers and distributors (esp. in Canada and Europe) are choosing to declare the full carbs in the nutrient data panel, and some diabetes associations and consumer groups are pressuring for gov't legislation to make this a legal requirement.
There are some claims that sugar alcohols don't have carbs, and therefore don't count; that they can be completely subtracted if listed on the label. This statement is not entirely "false" but it is misleading. Sugar alcohols do have carbs, and approx. 1/2 to 3/4 the calories of regular sugar. They are more slowly and incompletely absorbed from the small intestine than sugar, thus producing a much smaller and slower rise in blood sugar ... and consequently insulin. But this is a YMMV thing. Some Type 1 diabetics have reported that they sense an immediate "sugar rush" from eating even a small amount. Others notice no change, and absolutely no effect on ketosis.
Sugar alcohols do have carb calories, and the body will use these as fuel, or store as fat, whether or not insulin is involved. You need to look at the total CALORIES for one serving of the product. Subtract from this total the number of calories from any protein in the product (prot = 4 cal. per gm), then subtract the calories from any FAT in the product (fat = 9 cal. per gm). What's left is the calories from carbohydrate ... divide this remainder by 4 (carbs = 4 cal. per gm). If the number you get is bigger than the number of carbs declared on the label, the product has hidden carbs, and it's most likely the polyol. Calories do not just disappear into thin air!
The "laxative effect" happens for two reasons. First, because the sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed, they hold on to a lot of water in the bowel. This causes diarrhea. Another consequence is that when undigested carbs reach the colon, the normal bacteria present there go WILD --- resulting in unpleasant gas, and bloating. Sorbitol and mannitol are the worst offenders in this department, maltitol less so. The effect is dose-related -- you would be wise to pay attention to the serving size listed on the product label. This amount would be considered "safe" for the average adult -- make note of this before giving to a smaller child! Nothing like watching your kid doubled over with cramps and diarrhea because they ate too many "sugar free" sweets. To the best of my knowledge, sugar alcohols ARE safe for children, and pregnant/nursing mothers ... just keep an eye on the dose.
There are some newer sugar alcohols slowly making their way on the market, which have less laxative effect, and even less blood sugar and insulin consequence. Erythritol, isomalt and inulin are a few to watch for. There's another called HSH (hydrolyzed starch hydrolysate) also called maltitol syrup. The thing is, the different sugar alcohols have different properties, and can't be used for all things. Sorbitol is used in hard candies ... it produces a nice, clear candy that doesn't crystalize, and stays hard and dry in a humid environment. Because it doesn't crystalize, sorbitol is used in ice cream to help it stay creamy. Mannitol also can absorb a lot of moisture before it gets damp and sticky, therefore it's used to "dust" sticks of gum, to keep them dry. Maltitol and erythritol provide smooth bulk, and are ideal for chocolates and soft candies to give a creamy "melt in the mouth" quality.
Sugar alcohols are not acted upon by bacteria in the mouth, and therefore do NOT cause tooth decay. In fact, xylitol actually INHIBITS oral bacteria, and is often used in sugarless mints and chewing gum for this reason.
We are all individuals, and our bodies will react differently to these products. Depending on other factors, such as what else we've consumed along with it or on an empty stomach, we may even find ourselves having totally different reactions each time we eat it. So proceed with caution.
Be aware that there is potential to cause a rise in blood sugar and insulin ... although slower. Also the possibility to knock you out of ketosis, if you're following a ketogenic program such as Atkins. Pay attention to the serving SIZE. A 45-gram (1-1/2 oz) chocolate bar may state on the label that one serving is 15 grams (1/2 oz). That's only 1/3 of the bar, so keep that in mind when you're about to chow down.
If you are following Induction level low carb eating, it would be wise to avoid these products until at LEAST the 2 weeks are up, and your body's metabolism is settled well into ketosis and fat-burning mode. Same for other low carb programs, which may not be ketogenic, but do have strong effects on the metabolism (eg. Protein Power, Carb Addicts). Give your body the chance to adjust to the new WOE first, then cautiously add these products.
KEYWORD moderation. Most low carbers find they can indulge very occasionally in a polyol-sweetened treat without consequence to their weight loss effort, and perhaps a mild laxative effect or some gas. It's a trade-off, but helps to stave off cravings for high-sugar goodies. A problem could develop though, for someone with carb-addiction .... these candies just become a substitute addiction. Also, the sweet taste can trigger EMOTIONS (for an addict) that will result in a "rush" of hormones and enzymes in the body, ultimately leading to an insulin spike ... and fat STORAGE. And remember that candy is NOT a meal substitute. There's little or no protein, vitamins or essential fatty acids.
"Reduced Calorie Sweeteners: Polyols" from the Calorie Control Council
"Letter to Health Minister Allan Rock from CSPI Canada" Sept/00, urging accurate labelling of food products containing sugar alcohols, health warnings of the Gastrointestinal effects, and recommendations for control of dose per serving.