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Sugar Alcohols; Benefits of Drinking Water with Meals and Snacks

By Nicole Wavra, M.P.H., R.D. & Kristen N. Smith, Ph.D., R.D.N.

Q: What are sugar alcohols and how are they used?

A: Sugar alcohols occur naturally in some fruits and vegetables and are also a man-made ingredient commonly used as a substitute for sugar in foods. Despite their name they do not contain ethanol, found in alcoholic beverages. Their chemical structure looks similar to the chemical structure of both sugar and alcohol, hence the name.

There are a number of different sugar alcohols used in products like gum, jelly spreads, beverages, candy and toothpaste. If you read nutrition labels you will most often find the sugar alcohols xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol or maltitol listed in the ingredients.

Sugar alcohols contain fewer calories than sugar and are only partially digested so they have less of an effect on blood sugars. Sugar alcohols can help prevent tooth decay and they exert benefits on the gut. In addition, sugar alcohols in food also add texture, moisture and prevent browning when heated.

If consumed in large amounts, sugar alcohols may contribute to gas, bloating and diarrhea. Just like sugar alcohols differ in their calories and taste, they also differ in how much GI distress they cause.

– Nicole Wavra, M.P.H., R.D.

Q: Should I drink water during meals?

A: There has been some confusion about the importance of drinking water with meals and snacks. In fact, there have even been some concerns regarding water intake and negative impacts on digestion. However, Michael F. Picco, a physician from the Mayo Clinic notes “There’s no concern that water will dilute digestive juices or interfere with digestion. In fact, drinking water during or after a meal actually aids digestion.”

Regular and adequate water intake is essential for good health. Especially important is to consume enough water (and other beverages) to ensure that your body is able to effectively absorb and use the nutrients in the food you eat. An added bonus? Water acts as a natural stool softener and helps to prevent and/or lessen constipation. Drinking a glass of water around meal time can also help take the edge off of hunger and may assist in weight management.

It’s always important to consider your own personal situation – if you have been advised by a physician to limit water or fluids at any point throughout the day, heed that advice. If you want to increase water intake, be sure to bring it up at your next medical appointment.

– Kristen N. Smith, Ph.D., R.D.N.

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