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Copyright © 2005 by Virgo Publishing.
Posted : 09/13/2004

Sugar Alcohols Keep Getting Sweeter
by Harlee Sorkin

The promise of a reduced waistline has seen nutritional trends come and go, each trend leaving in its wake countless winners and losers. Most recently, the surge by food and beverage makers to offer low carbohydrate versions of their most popular products has yielded its own bounty. Non-nutritive sweeteners are arguably the biggest winners of the bunch. Artificial sweeteners like saccharine and aspartame have been part of American diets for decades, while Acesulfame K (Ace-K) and sucralose are more recent additions. Of late, sugar alcohols have made significant headway. Sugar alcohols, also called polyols or reduced sugars, are produced from sugars and display similar characteristics. Not only do they sweeten, they also exhibit bulking properties and similar functionality when used in food preparation. Exact caloric content varies among sugar alcohols, but generally results in about one-third fewer calories for the same sweetness.

The most common sugar alcohols are sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol and xylitol; sorbitol is the least expensive and makes up more than half of the estimated $1.3 billion global market.

Like all significant nutritional trends, sugar alcohols are not without their share of controversy. They have become very widely used in a relatively short period of time. Much of the concern surrounds the use of sorbitol.

Like other sugar alcohols, sorbitol is known to cause gastrointestinal (GI) distress when consumed in large quantities. Little or no benefit is claimed beyond calorie reduction. Sorbitol is derived from glucose via a chemical hydrogenation process.

Mannitol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol made by lactobacillus. For commercial use, however, it is produced by chemical hydrogenation of fructose. Maltitol is produced from high maltose corn syrup. Xylitol, which is made naturally by microbes such as yeast, is produced commercially from xylose.

Applications for sugar alcohols vary from food and confectionary to oral care and pharmaceutical. Each product has specific attributes that are important in their specific applications. For example, mannitol is used as a pharmaceutical excipient because of its low hygroscopicity. And xylitol has a cooling effect and potential dental health benefits that makes it ideal for gums, candies and other oral care products.

Sorbitol is widely used as a sweetener in oral products such as gum, toothpaste and mouthwash; however, sorbitol actively supports the growth of bacteria that are known to cause cavities. In contrast, sugar alcohols such as mannitol and xylitol are known to be non-cariogenic. Xylitol may even be anti-cariogenic, helping kill the bacteria that cause cavities.

There have been some medical studies that indicate xylitol has antimicrobial activity and can aid in the fight against ear infections in children.

While these studies still need to be replicated, the properties described are consistent with past research, as the oral bacteria responsible for dental caries has been linked to inner ear infections. In addition, xylitol appears to have improved GI tolerance.

Another health benefit is that sugar alcohols such as xylitol are metabolized independently of insulin. As such, they have a lower glycemic index resulting in a reduced insulin response so they can be used as sweeteners in diabetic products.

Even with all the potential benefits of xylitol, there are a number of factors that currently keep its use from expanding in the United States. First, it remains relatively expensive as a sweetener. Even if the health benefits were more widely known, the price of products made with xylitol would still limit its market. Second, the production of xylitol is currently limited by raw material supply. The most common source of xylose for making xylitol is birch tree hemicellulose that has been purified by the paper and pulp industry. In order to overcome the price and raw material barriers that limit xylitol production, a new process for production of xylitol from a cheaper source of xylose or alternative starting material must be developed.

The current market for xylitol is approximately $125 million and growing.

Itís not a leap to say that market could significantly increase, at the expense of sorbitol to some degree, if cost and raw material issues were solved.

One company working in that field is Chicago-based zuChem, which has developed a fermentation process to produce mannitol, and recently announced a program to do the same for xylitol.

Sugar alcohols have generated some criticism in connection with their growing use. This has primarily been a result of some properties of the widely used sorbitol and the manufacturing methods used to produce it.

Widespread use of sugar alcohols has certainly benefited from recent diet trends, but with advances in manufacturing of less common sugar alcohols and more tangible health or nutrition benefits from those, the use of sugar alcohols in the food, personal care and pharmaceutical industries is poised to expand.

Harlee Sorkin is a principal with Mentor Management LLC, a private equity and management consulting firm based in Champaign, Ill.

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