What are sugar alcohols in gum?
You probably know that minty gum freshens breath, but what is that main ingredient called "sugar alcohol?"
Sugar alcohol is not quite sugar and certainly not alcohol. In truth, it gets its name from the chemical structure, which is a kind of hybrid between a sugar molecule and an alcohol molecule (carbon rings with oxygen-hydrogen groups on them, also called polyols) - though it does not contain ethanol. As a sugar substitute, the ingredient is a sweetener found in products often labeled "sugar free," "low calorie" and "tooth friendly." In this case, the labels don't lie - sugar alcohol has some unique benefits.
Polyols pop up in nature in fruits like apples and pears, but any commercial product that contains them must list the specific alcohols. Common sugar alcohols include xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates. You've likely chewed on xylitol and sorbitol in your stick of gum, as they're the most common form. Though these may not be non-caloric, they have fewer calories than sucrose - or plain table sugar. Hence, you might see fewer calories labeled on a pack of gum with sugar alcohols than traditional bubble gum.
Xylitol ranks among the more popular sugar alcohols, and for good reason. Fighting bad breath and tooth decay, the ingredient tastes like sucrose, has roughly the same sweetness and contains about half the calories. Xylitol is a naturally occurring five-carbon sugar polyol found in various trees, fruits and vegetables, and our bodies create it as a product of the glucose metabolic pathway.
In 1963, xylitol was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a dietary food additive and has been used widely in the general market ever since. With a pronounced mint flavor, xylitol is used to spark gum's freshness and get rid of halitosis. Chiefly, it is resistant to fermentation by oral bacteria, so sugar-free gum manufacturers employ it to sweeten products without causing cavities.
Similar to xylitol, sorbitol is a naturally occurring compound that's closely related to glucose. Sweet to the tongue, the ingredient is primarily found in stone fruits and used in diet sodas, sugar-free gum, ice cream and desserts. Sorbitol is about half as sweet as sucrose and xylitol. As a result, people are more likely to consume greater amounts of it to satisfy their desired level of sweetness.
Unlike the cavity-fighting xylitol, sorbitol does not appear to have any proactive impact on the mouth. While it may not affect insulin or blood glucose, but it still does not have the health benefits of xylitol.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) officially recognizes the benefits of sugar substitutes, particularly xylitol, in preventing cavities and promoting the oral health of kids, adolescents and adults.
Xylitol has been praised for its dental perks. Since the ingredient has properties that reduce levels of mutans streptococci (MS) - the No. 1 culprit of cavities - the sugar alcohol can help slash the risk of tooth decay. According to the AAPD, xylitol disrupts the energy production process of MS, allowing our mouth's saliva to tear down and flight bacteria in the mouth. Studies have shown that xylitol levels reduce the adhesion of MS strains to the teeth, resulting in less acid production. In short, xylitol is great for a healthy smile!