DEAR DR. BLONZ: I purchased sugar-free ice cream and noticed that the carton stated "sugar alcohol: 7 grams per half cup." What is sugar alcohol, and is this anything I should be concerned about? -- D.D., Lafayette, Calif.
DEAR D.D.: Most think of alcohol in relation to beverages and the ethyl alcohol they contain, but in chemistry, the term "alcohol" can refer to any compound containing a particular chemical structure. A sugar alcohol belongs to the family of carbohydrates having the "alcohol" structure and also a sweet taste. The sugar alcohols include sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol and xylitol. Each has a slightly different take on "sweet," but one thing they share is that you don't need to show an ID to buy products containing them (unless, of course, they also contain ethyl alcohol).
When compared to regular sugars such as sucrose, glucose or fructose, sugar alcohols contain about half the calories, they are not as rapidly absorbed and they have an insignificant impact on blood sugar level. This makes them useful as a sugar substitute for diabetics and others looking to limit their sugar intake.
Sugar alcohols are metabolized differently than other carbohydrates; one beneficial aspect of this is that they do not feed the acid-producing bacteria that live in our mouths. As such, sugar alcohols do not contribute to tooth decay.
They are not considered "sugars" for food-labeling purposes, and don't have to be declared on the label, but they can be. The FDA allows food sweetened only with sugar alcohols to be labeled "sugar free." While they have their benefits, be careful not to overdo it. Part of the sugar alcohol is not efficiently absorbed, and passes through and ends up being fermented by flora that live in the lower part of the digestive system. This can contribute to abdominal gas and cramping, especially when consumed on an empty stomach.
DEAR DR. BLONZ: I would like to find out more about hearts of palm. I eat them in a salad quite frequently, and it just occurred to me that it was part of the palm and I don't want to be adding palm oil to my diet. I belong to an eating club, and we are all senior citizens interested in living a long life. We debated the benefits and potential dangers of this at our last meeting, and are all anxious to know your answer. -- G.G., Tucson, Ariz.
DEAR G.G.: Hearts of palm come from the palm plant, but not from the oil-containing portion. A one-third cup serving of hearts of palm contains less than a half-gram of fat, 14 calories, 207 mg of sodium, 1.5 mg of iron, and 1 gram of dietary fiber, together with manganese and smaller amounts of vitamin C, folate and other nutrients.
Finally, why do you classify palm oil as a no-no? This undeserved reputation originated from the misplaced branding of palm oil -- and all other tropical oils -- as foods to avoid at all cost. These foods, especially when present as a part of a whole food, can play a role in any well-balanced diet.
Send questions to: "On Nutrition," Ed Blonz, c/o Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.