These days there are more sugar-free products filling supermarket shelves than ever before. This increased demand for lower sugar substitutes can be attributed to many reasons. Some of these include a rise in health conditions such as diabetes, increasing rates of overweight/obesity, and growing trends (unfortunately) of fad-diets which often demonise sugar/carbohydrates.
Regardless of the reason – many are now opting for sugar-free alternatives to various products. Now while you may not get the extra calories from a sugar-free product, you can end up causing yourself some gut grief. This is particularly common for those with IBS.
Use of polyols as sweeteners
Polyols are one of the most common types of sweeteners used in sugar-free products. Polyols contain a carbohydrate base, and as a result are a type of FODMAP (the ‘P’ in FODMAP). They are often added to sweeten sugar-free products, such as gum and mints. Some polyols commonly used as sweeteners include mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol and mannitol. An easy way to tell if an ingredient is a polyol is if it ends in ‘ol’.
Polyols may provoke symptoms such as diarrhoea, flatulence, bloating and cramps. This is more common amongst IBS sufferers, however, those without IBS often don’t tolerate polyols well either. This is due to their poor absorption in the lower intestine.
Have you ever noticed the warning “excess consumption may have laxative effect” on the label of many sugar-free gums, medications (such as lozenges/cough syrup) and confectionary? This is due to the presence of polyols – especially sorbitol and mannitol. Majority of IBS sufferers appear to benefit from avoiding sorbitol.
It is important to be careful with label reading when it comes to ‘naturally’ sweetened products – as many will also contain polyols and/or inulin.
What about sugar-free products that don’t contain polyols?
Commercial products use various other sweeteners, aspartame being one of the most common. A range of products contain aspartame, particularly sugar-free soft drinks. Unlike polyols, aspartame contains an amino-acid base. As it contains no carbohydrate, aspartame is not a FODMAP.
Other sweeteners frequently used in products include stevia, saccharin, and sucralose (see summary table below). Like aspartame, these do not contain FODMAPs. For this reason, they may be tolerated by some individuals with IBS. Note that we aren’t recommending consumption of artificial sweeteners, however, in some instances they’re safe. If you do choose to consume artificial sweeteners, try to do so in moderation.
FODMAP levels of common sweeteners
|Sweetener||FODMAP level||Type:||Commonly found:||Often listed as: (additive number)|
|Polyols||HIGH||Artificial||Sugar-free gums/mints/confectionary, and “diet” dessert products. Certain fruits and vegetables such as avocado, apples, watermelon and cauliflower naturally contain polyols.||–|
(note: pure stevia is low FODMAP, however it is often blended with polyols and/or inulin – read label carefully)
|Natural||Various diet beverages such as soft-drink, ice-tea, drink powders (e.g hot chocolate), some condiments.||–|
|LOW*||Artificial||Various diet beverages such as soft drinks, some diet yoghurts, and confectionary.||(951)|
(Sweet ‘n’ low)
|LOW*||Artificial||Diet soft drinks/cordials, diet-jelly, some diet-dessert products.||(954)|
(Note: evidence suggests sucralose may alter gut bacteria)
|Artificial||Protein powders, low-fat dairy products, low-fat/low-calorie condiments, some gum/confectionary.||(955)|
Note: saccharin, sucralose and aspartame have not been officially tested – but are considered to be low FODMAP. Stevia has been tested and is low FODMAP at a serve of 2 grams.
Other potential IBS triggers
As well as sweeteners, there are a few other reasons behind why certain sugar-free products worsen gut symptoms such as:
Many sugar-free products, such as energy drink and cola, also contain caffeine. Caffeine is a common gut irritant, particularly in large amounts.
Carbonated beverages often worsen IBS symptoms, and are a common culprit for bloating.
Alcohol is notorious gut irritant, so pre-mix alcoholic beverages which are sugar-free may be more likely to trigger symptoms.
Using a straw/repeat chewing
Constantly chewing on gum or drinking through a straw can worsen symptoms such as bloating, due to taking in more air.