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Sugars and Sugar Alcohols: What’s the Difference?

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If you have diabetes, it’s critical to understand how carbohydrates and sugar affect blood glucose levels. If sugar is used as a replacement for other carbohydrates -- gram for gram (calorie for calorie) -- and is not simply added to the diet, people with diabetes can safely eat foods that contain sugar. 

One downside is that rather than substituting sugary foods for other carbohydrates, most people just eat both. Another downside is that sugary foods contain mainly "empty calories," whereas starchy foods are more nutritious because they also supply vitamins, minerals and fiber. 

Sugar is available in many forms -- white, brown, granulated and confectioners'. The chemical name for these sugars is sucrose. Many food products contain other types of sugar, all having chemical names that end in -ose, such as glucose (also called dextrose), fructose (in fruits and honey), lactose (in milk products) and maltose (in starchy foods). 

During digestion, sucrose, lactose and maltose are broken down into glucose and other simpler types of sugars. Unfortunately, some foods that are labeled "safe for diabetics" just replace sucrose with fructose, maltose or other forms of sugar. That's why it's important to check food labels for hidden sugars such as honey, corn syrup, molasses and ingredients ending in the telltale -ose. 

Beware sugar alcohols. Also watch for sugar alcohols with names that end in -ol, such as sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol and maltitol. These sweeteners are chemically related to alcohol, but they have no alcoholic effects. They are carbohydrates that are converted to ordinary sugar during digestion. 

Sugar alcohols are used in many products labeled as "low carb," "low sugar" or "sugar free." But don't be fooled. Sugar alcohols have calories and will raise your blood glucose level. In addition, many low-carb foods that are sweetened with sugar alcohols are high in fat, and large quantities of sugar alcohols often cause diarrhea. 

Posted in Diabetes on December 29, 2011


Medical Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute for the advice of a physician. Click here for additional information: Johns Hopkins Health Alerts Disclaimer


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Health Alerts registered users may post comments and share experiences here at their own discretion. We regret that questions on individual health concerns to the Johns Hopkins editors cannot be answered in this space.

The views expressed here do not constitute medical advice, and do not represent the position of Johns Hopkins Medicine or Remedy Health Media, LLC, which has no responsibility for any comments posted on this site.


After having my Dr. tell me that my sugar level has gone from a stable 5.3 to 7.4 he is suggesting I start a program of injecting insulin. However, he says that if I can lose 35 lbs, he will maintain me on oral drugs such as Metphormin. He tells me that I should stay away from all foods grown in the ground, potatoes, carrots, etc., and to stay away from all products manufactured with flour. I am already on a sugar free and salt free diet. Has anybody come across a diet book that tells you how to make tasty meals without using the above products? Thank you very much.

Posted by: V9C1M3 | December 31, 2011 3:17 PM

Please give me the name of the northern CA doctor you consider most qualified to treat type2 diabetes.Thank you, Keltic

Posted by: KELTIC | January 1, 2012 11:39 PM

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