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Sugar free products and IBS

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10 August 2022|3 min read

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 and growing trends (unfortunately) of fad diets that often demonise sugar and 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.  The 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 contains aspartame, particularly sugar-free soft drinks. Unlike polyols, aspartame contains an amino-acid base.  As it contains no carbohydrates, aspartame is not a FODMAP.

Other sweeteners frequently used in products include stevia, saccharin, and sucralose. 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 the 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

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:

Caffeine

Many sugar-free products, such as energy drinks and cola, also contain caffeine. Caffeine is a common gut irritant, particularly in large amounts.

Carbonation

Carbonated beverages often worsen IBS symptoms, and are a common culprit for bloating.

Alcohol

Alcohol is a notorious gut irritant, so pre-mix alcoholic beverages which are sugar-free may be more likely to trigger symptoms.

Using a straw and chewing gum

Constantly chewing on gum or drinking through a straw can worsen symptoms such as bloating, due to taking in more air.

Need help with the low FODMAP diet? Our FREE dietitian developed program will guide you through it, step-by-step. Includes a low FODMAP food guide. Sign up now.

If you are experiencing gut symptoms and have not been recommended a low FODMAP diet by a health professional, get started with the manage your gut symptoms program.

Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board March 2022

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. If you have any concerns or questions about your health you should consult with a health professional.