Sugar Alcohols

The common sugar alcohols – sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, erythritol, and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates – are manufactured from cornstarch. Xylitol, another common sugar alcohol, is manufactured from such sources as corn cobs, sugar cane bagasse (stalk residue remaining after sugar extraction), or birch wood waste. Isomalt and lactitol are becoming more common and are manufactured from sucrose and whey, respectively. Isomalt and lactitol are commonly called bulk sweeteners because their sizes are nearly the same as sugar.

Sugar alcohols are sometimes referred to as polyols, a generic term that represents a family of different products, not a unique single ingredient.

What is sorbitol?

Although small amounts of sorbitol are present is some fruits, the commercial source of sorbitol is the dextrose (glucose) produced from cornstarch. Sorbitol is manufactured by hydrogenating (adding hydrogen) the recovered dextrose. While another name for sorbitol is glucitol (resembling glucose), sorbitol is the term used by the food industry.

Sorbitol is about 60% as sweet as sucrose, and is considered to have 2.6 calories per gram. The Food and Drug Administration concurs with this caloric value.

FDA regulations permit sorbitol to be used in food “at levels not to exceed good manufacturing practices.” These regulations further require that any sorbitol-containing foods whose consumption would add 50 grams (1-3/4 ounces) of sorbitol to a person’s diet must be labeled with the statement, “Excess consumption may have a laxative effect.”

Sorbitol is used in hard and soft candies, flavored jam and jelly spreads, baked goods and baking mixes, chewing gum and cough drops. The maximum amount of sorbitol permitted in each of these products is regulated by FDA.

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What is mannitol?

Mannitol is widespread in nature, being present in the fruit, leaves and other parts of various plants. Strawberries, celery, onions, pumpkins and mushrooms are particularly good sources.

Commercially, mannitol is manufactured from fructose. Today, the source of fructose is cornstarch. Prior to the commercialization of starch hydrolysis, mannitol was produced from the fructose component of invert sugar. During hydrogenation (hydrogen addition), the fructose molecule rearranges to the sugar mannose. That is why this sugar alcohol is called mannitol.

Mannitol is about 60% as sweet as sucrose, and is considered to have 1.6 calories per gram. The Food and Drug Administration concurs with this caloric value.

While its principal use is pharmaceutical applications, FDA regulations require that any mannitol-containing foods whose consumption would add 20 grams (less than 3/4 of an ounce) of mannitol to a person’s diet must be labeled with the statement, “Excess consumption may have a laxative effect.”

Mannitol is used in hard and soft candies, flavored jam and jelly spreads, confections and frostings, chewing gum and cough drops. The maximum amount of mannitol permitted in each of these products is regulated by FDA.

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What is maltitol?

Maltitol is manufactured by hydrogenating maltose, the glucose-glucose disaccharide (two sugars) derived from cornstarch. The use of maltitol in food is approved in most countries including Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

While maltitol has not been approved officially for use in food in the United States, U.S. food manufacturers may use maltitol since FDA has accepted the 1986 petition seeking this approval. In 1999, FDA agreed officially that a value of 2.1 calories per gram was acceptable.

Maltitol is about 90% as sweet as sugar. This feature makes it attractive to the food manufacturer as a one-for-one replacement of sugar.

The FDA petition seeks approval for the use of maltitol in the same food categories approved for sorbitol and mannitol.

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What is hydrogenated starch hydrolysate?

The singular term “hydrogenated starch hydrolysate” is applied to a family of polyol products. Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH) are produced by the partial hydrolysis of starch – corn being the most prominent – and the subsequent hydrogenation the various starch fragments (dextrins). In practice, “hydrogenated starch hydrolysate” is used to describe products that contain more hydrogenated dextrins than sorbitol or maltitol.

This expansive term “hydrogenated starch hydrolysate” does not identify the primary polyol used in the food. However, if a HSH contains 50% or more sorbitol, for example, it can be labeled as “sorbitol syrup.” The same would also be true for the labeling of “maltitol syrup.”

Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates are 20% to 50% as sweet as sugar. HSH sweetness depends on its particular composition. For example, a HSH containing more maltitol would be sweeter than one containing more sorbitol.

Like maltitol, U.S. food manufacturers may use HSH while FDA reviews the petition seeking approval for use in foods. The HSH family of polyols is an approved food ingredient in Canada, Japan and Australia.

Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates can be used in the same types of products that use the other common sugar alcohols. HSH products are generally blended with other sweeteners, both caloric and artificial.

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What is erythritol?

Erythritol is the newest sugar alcohol to be manufactured from cornstarch. Unlike sorbitol, maltitol or hydrogenated starch hydrolysates, erythritol is produced by a fermentation process.

Erythritol is approximately 70% as sweet as sucrose, supplies about two-tenths of a calorie per gram, and has a mild cooling effect in the mouth. Erythritol is used mainly confectionery and baked products, chewing gum and some beverages.

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What is xylitol?

Xylitol has approximately the same sweetness as sugar. Xylitol provides the greatest cooling effect of any of the sugar alcohols. Xylitol has a pronounced mint flavor. These characteristics make xylitol the polyol of choice for sugar-free chewing gums, candies and chewable vitamins.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of xylitol in foods for special dietary purposes. The main application is foods formulated to meet the dietary needs of diabetics.

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What is isomalt?

Isomalt is manufactured from sugar. The original glucose – fructose bond remains intact. The fructose portion of sugar is converted to equal amounts of sorbitol and mannitol. The glucose portion is unchanged. Thus, isomalt is a mixture of two disaccharides, glucose-sorbitol and glucose-mannitol.

Isomalt is about half as sweet as sugar and, unlike most polyols, produces no cooling effect in the mouth. Isomalt is considered to have 2 calories per gram.

Because the original glucose – fructose bond remains, isomalt can be heated with no loss of sweetness or change in texture. While isomalt can provide nearly the bulk that sugar gives, baked products containing isomalt tend to be crispier and do not brown the same when heated.

While isomalt has not been approved for use in food in the United States, U.S. food manufacturers may use isomalt since the Food and Drug Administration has accepted the 1990 petition seeking this approval. It has been used in Europe since the early 1980s, and is approved in more than 70 countries worldwide.

Isomalt is used in hard and soft candies, chocolates, ice cream, jams and preserves, baked goods, fillings and fondants, chewing gum and cough drops. Isomalt may be mixed with an artificial sweetener to bring the level of sweetness up to what it would be if sugar were used.

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What is lactitol?

Lactitol is manufactured from whey, the lactose (milk sugar) rich by-product of cheese making and processed dairy foods. Lactitol is slightly less than half as sweet as sugar and is considered to have 2 calories per gram, which has been accepted by the Food and Drug Administration.

Lactitol is not approved officially for use in food in the United States. However, U.S. food manufacturers may use lactitol since FDA has accepted the 1993 petition seeking this approval for chewing gum, hard and soft candies, and frozen dairy desserts.

Lactitol is used in a wide range of reduced-sugar or sugar-free foods, from baked goods and frozen dairy desserts to candies, chocolate confections and preserves. Lactitol is often mixed with artificial sweeteners.

In laboratory studies, lactitol has been shown to promote the growth of the two bacteria recognized to improve the health of the large intestine. As a result, the prebiotic potential of lactitol is sometimes highlighted for the foods using this sugar replacer.

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