The Sweet Spot II: Sugar & Sugar Alcohols 03/10/2014

The Sweet Spot II

Last week, I covered a few topics on the history of sugar, how sugar is used today and in what amounts, how it's really fairly irrelevant in the grand schemes of things, in today's modern world and ... how, even after all of that, it still tastes good, people are still going to eat sweet things and ... there are some good options available!

Read last weeks introduction to the Sweet Spot, here.

Brussels Sprout and Bacon Hash

Before I get into the sweet spot, I want to share a recipe that comes from my friend Martina, over at Last week, I shared some sweet recipes, which seemed fitting for a new series devoted to sweeteners, but without having much of a sweet tooth myself, I wanted to balance out all the cloying info that we're about to dig into with something savory.

I believe I first met Martina through the Low Carb Eating Facebook page. I was always impressed with her, in very large part because she's gone a step further than cookbooks or eBooks. Her and her partner have put together a full APP for the iPhone and iPads. I love to poke fun at her, because I'm an Android guy ... so I've personally never been able to use her app, but have HEARD great things! Not only does she have the app, but she also develops her own recipes! Always loving a good guest post, we swapped! I gave her a Thai Sweet and Sour Shrimp Soup and she gave me this OUTRAGEOUS looking Brussels Sprout and Bacon Hash!

Click the image above to check out the recipe. I just want to thank Martina for the great recipe! Check out her blog for over 150 other delicious recipes!


Stepping deeper into the sweeteners discussion, it seems reasonable to begin this discussion with the big granddaddy of them all: sugar. This post could get very deep and extremely scientific, but it won't. My aim is to supply relatively surface information, rather than bog the discussion down in detail. My hope is to cover the meaningful stuff that matters to most people. I will absolutely leave loads of stones unturned. This is a massive subject. Even a full book on the subject would not be able to touch it all. So ... please excuse the brevity. * Ahem * ...

Sugar is that white granular stuff that we all know and love. Because we all know it and love it, our culture, and many other cultures, has grown up around it. This means that cookie recipes, cake recipes and ice cream recipes have been formulated and refined over hundreds of years, based on the characteristics of sugar. The characteristics of sugar reach much further into our tasty sweets than one might initially discern. Sure, the stuff is sweet, but ... it's got a point at which it dissolves in water. It's got a point at which it melts. It's got a point at which it caramelizes. It's got a point at which it will become gooey and stretchy, based on the temperature it's at or WAS at. It's got a point at which it will crack and shatter, if dropped on the floor. An over-simplication, but it's the sugar in cookies that give them their nice golden brown color. It's even got specific and unique hygroscopic properties. Anyone that's ever poured sugar on cut strawberries and let it sit for 30 minutes knows about its ability to pull yummy red juice from the sliced berries.

All of the sweet tasty treats we know and love have been developed by techniques refined over hundreds of years based completely around the specific characteristics of "sugar". This is why "sugar-free" treats are often so difficult to duplicate. The other stuff often behaves quite a bit differently!

Because sugar is "the norm" ... the familiar ingredient ... the devil we know ... it's what every single other sweetener is compared again. As endlessly frustrating as it is to say ... there simply is no equal that I've found. Every other sweetener I've run across is different. They've ALL got different characteristics and properties, but some come closer than others. This makes sense, though. If it looks like a duck, a quacks like a duck ... it's probably a duck.

If it looks, and behaves precisely the same ... it's likely to be sugar!

The best sweeteners I've found are actually blends of other sweeteners (technically, sugar is a blend of glucose and fructose). The final part of this series will focus on the blends. For now, let's focus on the individual ingredients.

Sugar Alcohols


Erythritol is easily my favorite core single ingredient. It's a natural non-caloric "sugar alcohol" (while actually having no sugar, and no ethanol aka "booze"). It's a byproduct of fermenting the sugars in some fruits. It's got a chemical structure similar to sugar and similar to alcohol, while having a rating of "zero" on the glycemic index, which suggests it has no impact on blood sugars, whatsoever. There's also no effect on cholesterol or triglycerides. In the body, most erythritol is absorbed into the bloodstream in the small intestine, and then for the most part excreted unchanged in the urine. About 10% enters the colon. Because 90% of erythritol is absorbed before it enters the large intestine, it does not normally cause laxative effects, as are often experienced after consumption of other sugar alcohols (such as xylitol and maltitol). Roughly 1/4 cup of the stuff can be eaten at once, without much issue. Ah, also ... unlike sugar, it doesn't contribute to tooth decay!

However, it's FAR from perfect, all on its own. First of all, its name ... Air-Rith-Ritt-All. Bleh. This polyol's name is largely responsible for people's resistance to use it. It's just unfriendly sounding. It SOUNDS like a chemical, even though it's actually a very naturally occurring solid. If I'm in polite company, dinner with friends and family, and the word "erythritol" comes bumbling out of my mouth, people look at me like I've just poured saccharose (sugar) in my coffee, or dumped that horrifying dihydrogen monoxide (water) into my pancake batter. If erythritol had a common usage/happy shiny name, it would be FAR more well received by the people of earth.

For years, I've tried to come up with a better name for it. The sound my mind always arrives at is: Smappy. I don't know why, but ... that's what my brain calls it and I think it would seamlessly blend in to a conversation if I said that I add smappy to my ice cream. Erythritol, on the other hand, would get accusing glares ... SMAPPY on the other hand sounds tasty!

Anywhoo ... smappy is 70% as sweet as sugar. If I'm reading a recipe that asks for 1 cup of sugar, I'll actually need about 1 1/2 cups of smappy! This is one clear and immediate way in which it's different than sugar. It has the same appearance, but ... isn't as sweet.

If you taste it, you'll also notice a "cooling sensation", not entirely unlike the sensation felt when enjoying a breath mint, or brushing one's teeth. This only occurs in the crystalline state, so don't worry about it cooling your coffee. The cooling sensation is gone when it's been dissolved, which is much harder to do than with sugar. Because of smappy's stubbornness in dissolving, many people powder or pulverize the granulated smappy in a strong blender or coffee grinder. Making the granules smaller helps them dissolve more quickly. I typically grind my own smappy.

Smappy does not caramelize. In order to use it in anything "caramel" tasting, it needs to be blended with something that DOES caramelize (personally, I like to brown butter, to get a caramel flavor).

Finally, smappy has a nasty habit of crystallizing when it cools, if used it too high a concentration (which is easy to do, when it takes EXTRA to sweeten with!). What this means is, if smappy is used in a super sweet highly concentrated confection, like a fudge, it will melt just fine and look like a spectacularly hot and tasty syrup, but when it cools, it reverts back into small grainy crystals. This results in a fudge that feels like it was dropped at the beach. Along with the gritty texture is that nice cooling sensation in the mouth. No fun!

In small amounts, however, where the erythritol is more evenly distributed and suspended in and amongst other ingredients, it will stay dissolved, not crystallize and not have the cooling sensation.

It's for all these seemingly bizarre quirks and behavioral traits that erythritol isn't that great of a sweetener, all on its own. HOWEVER, it DOES make for a FANTASTIC base for a blend. It's fantastic to add bulk to potent sweeteners, like stevia. All my favorite low to zero net carb sweeteners are based on erythritol, with other things peppered in to help it caramelize, boost sweetness, decrease crystallization, etc.

Smappy is my favorite sweetener. Hands down.


Xylitol is another sugar alcohol, or "Polyol". It looks like sugar. It's also natural and comes from the fibers in fruits and vegetables (and trees, like birch). It's also good for teeth!

This sweetener is the most like sugar in terms of tastes and behaviors. It's 92% as sweet as sugar, it melts and it never crystallizes like erythritol. This is a fairly common sweetener in diabetic circles, as it's a great substitute for sugar and has a glycemic index of 7. The "Glycemic Index" is a rating of how quickly blood levels are increased by eating a certain type of food. Erythritol is 0, Glucose is 100 and something like table sugar is about 60 or so. Again, xylitol is 7. Because of this 7, I've always gone for erythritol, which is 0. I mean, why settle for second best?

Xylitol also has other issues which make it less desirable than erythritol. Aside from the higher GI, it's also got 2.4 calories per tsp, while smappy is much closer to zero (0.24). Sugar is 4. It's also poisonous to dogs. While xylitol doesn't have much of an insulin response in humans, 10 pieces of xylitol chewing gum can cause a severe insulin response in a medium sized dog, causing liver failure it not treated within the hour. While this comes across as startling ... bear in mind that dogs also have issues with chocolate.

Another issue related to xylitol is its gastric issues. Whereas erythritol is fine in fairly substantial amounts, xylitol tends to cause gastric distress (nausea, diarrhea and gas) with only as little as 1/4 cup spread throughout an entire day. Thankfully, repeated usage increases tolerance, allowing someone the ability to "work up" to tolerating large quantities of the stuff. While this is all fine and good, I've read countless stories of people who have adopted xyltitol in their daily lives, innocently and mindlessly baking a big batch of brownies and bringing them to potlucks. Some unsuspecting friends and family are then treated to a night of agonizing tummy troubles.

Again, it's not a perfect ingredient. However, it can and does work blended with other ingredients and in certain situations where it DOES work, quite well!


Maltitol is about 75% as sweet as sugar. This is one that I frown pretty heavily at. SUPER delicious, it's A LOT like sugar and has its strong suits. It has nearly identical properties, with the exception of caramelizing. I've never seen it used in a recipe for the home and it's certainly not at the local grocery store. You'll probably never actually hold this in your hand.

Why list it? Why do I frown?

Maltitol (GI of 36) and maltitol syrup (GI of 52, almost as high as sugar) are both HEAVILY used in the production of "sugar-free" products, especially chocolates. Maltitol is very commonly used in things like sugar-free snacks and meal replacement bars. It's used in candies and ice creams. It's amongst one of the most common sweeteners used in the processing of "sugar-free" products. However, it's not really "sugar-free" in the sense that it converts to glucose in the blood at almost the same pace as sugar. The BODY treats it like sugar, and because it's not as sweet as sugar, more is used! In addition to this issue, it's also got a strong laxative effect, which gives a bad name to ALL sugar alcohols. People will purchase a sugar-free candy bar, ignore the warnings printed on the label, and spend their evening curled up on the bathroom floor, rather than enjoy another cut throat round of "Chopped" on the TV.

Within the halls of low-carb, you'll often hear the term "hidden carbs" whispered. These are carbs that tend not to be listed, but ... still pack a punch to the blood sugars. Maltitol is one of the most devious and conniving hidden carbs there is.

This gets into my loathing of labeling laws. See, many low-carbers are told that they can deduct "sugar alcohol" carbs from their carb count, resulting in the famous "net carb" count (Carbs minus Fiber minus Sugar Alcohols equals Net Carbs). In fact, this is how my OWN site calculates its net carb total. However, not all sugar alcohols are created zero. This one is really just about as bad as sugar, resulting in people purchasing these treats, eating them innocently assuming they're acceptable and ... find that they're not losing weight and are needing to roll down the windows a lot during long drives in the car. This creates problems for them, the other people in the car AND gives a bad reputation to low-carb.

I hate you, Maltitol ... you sweet thing.

Isomalt, Sorbitol, Lacticol and Mannitol

These 4 are lesser known sugar alcohols. They're all rated as lower than 10 on the glycemic index, with mannitol even coming in at zero. They're all very roughly 50% as sweet as sugar, but most are pretty obscure and don't register very highly in the low-carb world. If I ever delve REALLY deeply into this subject, I would like to study these further, as they do hold some curiosity for me.

A special mention for Isomalt. I've seen it used in some blends, with a very popular one being known as DiabetiSweet, a blend of isomalt, with its sweetness boosted with Acesulfame-k Potassium (Ace K) (something we'll get to, in a bit). I've used this, while living down in Mexico, where I was able to find it at the local grocery store. It was kind of a strange substance. As I understand it, it's used heavily in sugar-pulling contests, where it's got AMAZING properties, similar to sugar, in the stretching and forming of sugar sculptures. Yep, hot isomalt can be turned into brightly colored flowers, balloons and swans!

It's my understanding that each of these has fairly substantial laxative effects. They are often used in candies (sorbitol, for example, is often used in hard candies).

Because these aren't often used in the home, or in any major blends that I'm aware of ... this is a section I'm glossing over ...

Ok, that about covers my list of fairly common sugar alcohols! Stay tuned next week, when I dig into natural sweeteners, like stevia, monk fruit, honey and maple syrup!

Before we sign off ... let share one more savory recipe.

Coconut Shrimp

Here's another guest post over at Vanessa Romero's Healthy Living How To. It's my recipe, but posted over there. Check it out. While there, tell Vanessa I said, "Hello!"

Ok ... that's it. That's all she wrote. More fun next week!

See you, Sweeties! ;)


Hi Chris, I took a food writing course about a year ago. We learned a lot about citing our work and various statements. I learned about quoting legitimate sources, such as schools, libraries, medical and science publications, etc. I also learned that quoting “stuff on the internet” is … not legitimate. Wikipedia is not fact. Even a lot of news publications are not fact. I, unfortunately, do this … and may perpetuate myth. My writing is based on lots of reading various books (which contain both facts and opinions), countless hours muddling through online forums (hearsay), Wikipedia, other bloggers, etc. I feel confident that my writing is written with the best of intentions and mostly solid … but I’d also say you may want to consider throwing a grain of salt or two over your shoulder. Each and every claim is not fully backed by a known or reliable source. I cannot go through line by line and cite the study. This series, as well as my whole blog, is an aggregation of the things I’ve read, processed and felt … It’s an interpretation of what I believe … but … beliefs are not always based in fact. Frankly … given the way that some studies are backed and others aren’t … it often makes me wonder if facts are even based on facts. In any event, if you have a specific question about any claim, I can do my best to tell you where I dug it up, but … so much of this just comes from years of reading … I may not even know where I picked up that particular kernel. In any event … I hope something in here helps … or at least clarifies the very well intended and flimsy validity of my blog.
by DJ on Jun 09, 2014, 12:40 PM EST
Hi DJ,
I am taking a class and chose to use your blog in one of my papers. I did not see any references listed for where you have gotten your info. I am wondering what your sources are. Thanks! My sister-in-law introduced me to your blog and recipes. :)
by Chris K on Jun 08, 2014, 07:16 PM EST
Interesting, Rosemary! I've got coconut crystals in my next installment, but I'm super curious to know if you have any thoughts on why those two polyols bother your system? I do know it exists, but the overwhelming majority of people can tolerate it, especially if they put the time in to build a tolerance. I've never heard of anyone having an issue with stevia, though. I'm wondering if you had a reaction to the "filler" in whichever stevia product you picked up? Perhaps a stevia tincture would work for you? If you read this and reply, I'd love to know if you've got any insight into your issues with these sweeteners. Also ... congrats on the changing shape! :)
by DJ on Mar 12, 2014, 02:17 PM EST
I loved your article on sugars ! I've been doing Atkins since 1/2/14 . Not losing a lot of weight. Instead losing inches. Apparently I'm one of the strange ones that can't handle Stevia, Erythritol and Xylitol . I have to admit I was very excited when I read about these sugars for cooking and baking. I would use 1 teaspoon of xylitol in my tea and it tasted wonderful ! Within 1 hour I was nausea for about 3 hours. Tried erythritol….same thing happened. Tried baking with it. Same thing happened but worse results. So I invested a lot of money in learning. I am now trying raw coconut crystals from my health food store. So before people run out and spend a lot of money….ask your health food store for some samples.
by Rosemary on Mar 12, 2014, 07:39 AM EST
Great followup points, Heather. Me either! (ok, maybe I'll take a pass on the avocados, but ... I'm weird like that! ;) ). Thanks for the thoughts! :)
by DJ on Mar 09, 2014, 03:18 PM EST
I love your points about Xylitol, which I use sometimes for sweetening. I too, hate the laxative effect, but love the results in baking. Many articles I have read slam Xylitol immediately for being toxic to dogs and warn you not to use it. I am glad that you pointed out that chocolate, which has been touted as healthy for humans is also toxic to dogs. The darker the better for us, the darker the worse for dogs. Also on the list for toxic for dogs that are healthy for us: avocados, onions, and garlic. I don't think that I will be avoiding chocolate, avocados, onions or garlic anytime soon. ;) Thanks DJ! This is turning into a great post!
by Heather E on Mar 07, 2014, 01:19 PM EST
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