We're Not Shotting (Sugar) Alcohol!
This article was written in conjunction with Alex Rodriguez, Accredited Practicing Dietitian
Have you ever seen those funky looking words that end in ‘ol’, on ingredients lists of food products?
What about things like sugar free lollies and chewing gum, where there’s that little heads up ‘excess consumption may have a laxative effect’?
The previous two examples are referring to things called sugar alcohols, one of the main FODMAPs recommended by dietitians to steer clear of until the rechallenge phase, when implementing the low FODMAP diet.
What are they?
Sugar alcohols are types of molecules, collectively referred to as ‘polyols’.
Without getting too sciencey, they are built similarly to sugars, except part of their structures (bodies) are replaced by an alcohol group.
Think of a person, where in one example they are holding a glass of water, and in the other they are holding a glass of alcohol. Same person, same income, same super contribution, but they’re both holding something different.
Unfortunately, unlike person B in the latter example, we won’t get a buzz from the alcohol group attached- it's not that kind of alcohol!
Sugar alcohols are found naturally in many fruits and vegetables, but they can also be artificially made, and added to food products.
So tying it altogether, sugar alcohols are SIMILAR to sugars, but they AREN’T sugars.
What’s the point of them?
Sugar alcohols are often used as sugar substitutes in sugar free or ‘diet’ versions of products.
They still provide a sweet taste, however they are poorly absorbed in our gut compared to sugar, meaning we don’t access as much of the energy (Calories/Kilojoules) contained in them, like we do in sugar.
Most sugar alcohols are about 50-70% the sweetness of sugar (sucrose), whilst a few have the same sweetness as sugar.
Therefore, they may be useful in people from the general population trying to reduce their overall sugar intake, as well as potentially being useful in those with diabetes who need to monitor carbohydrate quantities per meal and snack.
In addition to providing a sweet taste, polyols can also provide bulk and texture to certain foods.
How do I find them?
Looking in the ingredients list, most sugar alcohols will end in “-ol”.
For example, some commonly used polyols added to food in Australia are:
- Sorbitol (420)
- Mannitol (421)
- Xylitol (967)
- Erythritol (968)
- Maltitol (965)
- Isomalt (953)
Polyols are also naturally found in many fruits and vegetables. Below are some examples that are particularly high:
What’s their relevance to IBS?
Like we said before, when polyols reach our gut, they don’t get absorbed very well.
They kind of just ‘sit’ there, and the body responds by sending more water to your small intestine, which may result in diarrhoea in some people (they don’t lie on those warnings on the packet…)
When they reach the large intestine, bacteria in there ‘eat’ the polyols, and shoot out gas after they finish. This elevated gas production may result in bloating, distension, flatulence, abdominal pain or constipation, depending on someone’s symptom profile.
Even in people without IBS, eating high amounts of polyols will probably produce some form of gut distress. People with IBS have guts which are just a little more sensitive to the effects of these sugar alcohols.
Everybody is different, therefore everybody is going to be able to tolerate different amounts of polyols in their diet.
If you feel like you experience gut distress after eating foods sweetened with polyols, and/or fruits and vegetables higher in them, it may be worth reducing the amount of these foods which you eat, to see if it provides any symptom relief.
- Prioritise reducing sugar free products, including chewing gum, rather than reducing fruits and veg
- If removing higher polyol fruits and veg from your diet, be sure to replace with other low FODMAP fruits and veg
- Seek guidance from a dietitian, to help you reduce, reintroduce and manage polyol consumption safely
And remember, here at Fodbods, all of our yummy products are certified FODMAP friendly which means they're low in polyols. This is because we don’t use any sugar alcohols to sweeten our products!