DEAR DR. ROACH: I recently was diagnosed as being prediabetic and told to watch my sugar intake. So I now read the nutrition facts on packages. However, I am confused about the listed sugars. Sometimes the label includes both "sugar" and "sugar alcohols." For instance, a package can read "sugars 1 g" and "sugar alcohols 11 g." Would my sugar intake be 1 g or 12 g? What is the difference, and what should I avoid/limit? — B.D.
ANSWER: First, congratulations on reading labels. There is a lot of good information to be found that can help you decide whether something is a healthy food for you. That being said, sugar alcohols are confusing.
Sugar alcohols have nothing to do with the type of alcohol in beer, wine or spirits, and they aren't sugars either. A sugar alcohol, such as sorbitol or xylitol, is an incompletely absorbed carbohydrate. Since they are incompletely absorbed, you get only some of the calories, and your blood sugar goes up less than if you had had the same amount of sweetness with regular sugar. A rough but reasonable rule of thumb is to count about half the grams of sugar alcohol as sugar, for the purposes of counting sugar grams. So in your example, it would be about 6.5 grams of sugar.
You might wonder what happens to the unabsorbed sugar alcohol. It continues through your GI tract and acts as a laxative. Some people are very sensitive and will have diarrhea with just a little sugar alcohol; others tolerate more.
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