If you’re like me and have a pretty strong sweet tooth, the proliferation of low-sugar treats from wellness-minded food brands over the past few years have likely caught your eye… and maybe even put your salivary glands into overdrive at the mere thought of them. But have you ever wondered what makes them such tasty dupes for the real deal?
Many of these desserts contain the same group of ingredients: sugar alcohols. While there are some perks of consuming them compared to conventional sugar, those who struggle with digestive issues need to be particularly careful about eating these purportedly healthier alternatives. To understand why that is, we asked Sarah Greenfield, RD, CSSD, a functional medicine dietitian who specializes in gut health.
What are sugar alcohols?
To start, sugar alcohols (aka polyols) are actually neither sugar nor alcohol, but carbohydrates with a similar chemical structure to sugar. There are a few different types of them (including but not limited to erythritol, sorbitol, maltitol, and xylitol), which vary by sweetness and sources. While some sugar alcohols exist in fruits and vegetables, the majority of the ones we get through diet—via processed foods like low-sugar gummy candies, gum, and “healthified” ice creams, as well as others marketed as sugar-free and/or keto-friendly—are artificial.
“Sugar alcohols enhance the sweetness of products without significantly raising blood sugar levels,” Greenfield says. For this reason, research shows that they can be a decent stand-in for people who need to be extra cautious of their glucose levels, as well as those aiming to stick to a low-sugar diet. “Since they are typically fermented by bacteria in the large intestines versus absorbed, they can be beneficial for overall microbial diversity and gut health,” she continues. To this point, one small study in healthy volunteers found that moderate intake of polyols could increase bifidobacteria in the microbiome and could therefore offer prebiotic benefits.
However, the potential cons of sugar alcohols can overshadow these pros, especially if you consume more than a small amount and/or have a sensitive stomach.
Sugar alcohols and digestive issues
If you’re prone to digestive issues, Greenfield says that you’ll likely want to lay off these low-sugar desserts as they can double down on your tummy troubles. “It is thought that sugar alcohols are poorly absorbed in the body and instead feed bacteria residing in the large intestines,” she explains, which points to trouble if your gut is imbalanced.
“Typically, people with digestive issues can have overgrowth of good and bad bacteria. Since these levels are already high, feeding them even more food can create more gas and fermentation, thus promoting the imbalance that already exists,” she continues. The result? Bloating, diarrhea, and other symptoms of digestive distress. “This rings especially true when you eat foods with sugar alcohols in large quantities,” she adds, “which we often do when something is sweet and also claims not to raise your blood sugar.” Plus, according to a 2017 review in Advances in Nutrition, ingestion of sugar alcohols (and particularly a combination of several types of them) can lead to intestinal dysmotility in people with IBS.
BTW, if you’ve ever heard of (or tried) the low FODMAP diet—which is designed to provide relief from IBS and other gut issues—the P in FODMAP stands for polyols, which adherents are advised to avoid for the very reasons shared above.
3 tips to help balance your gut and your sweet tooth
Of course, we’re not advocating for you to swap your desserts sweetened with sugar alcohols for the real stuff—especially if you have health conditions or concerns that necessitate a low-sugar diet. Instead, heed the following tips to minimize your risk of digestive upset from sugar alcohols and build healthier eating habits at large.
1. Get to know your microbiome
First things first, it’s important to recognize if these desserts are contributing to your GI issues. “If you notice that sugar alcohols are continually creating digestive distress, you may want to explore the overall diversity of your microbiome,” Greenfield shares. She advocates for functional testing to pinpoint exactly what’s going on in your gut; from there, you’ll get a much better sense if sugar alcohols (and other specific dietary triggers) are driving gut imbalances.
2. Be mindful of serving sizes
Greenfield reiterates that it can be challenging to limit your portions of low-sugar desserts since they’re marketed as healthy alternatives. If you do choose to keep these foods on hand, try your best to stick to the serving size designated on the package. “Make sure to stick to that and assess discomfort,” she explains. “If you find you are having a reaction to a typical serving size of sugar alcohols, it may be something you want to cut out of your diet.” Otherwise, she suggests opting for half a serving size to see if your stomach can better tolerate it.
3. Investigate why you’re reaching for low-sugar sweets in the first place
When it comes to sugar alcohol intake, Greenfield says it’s essential to explore the “why” behind it. For instance, choosing a lower-sugar option due to a medical condition like diabetes is completely different than doing so in an attempt to lose weight. If your body is able to tolerate real sugar, know that there are plenty of feel-good desserts to choose from—and they’re certainly not limited to options that pack sugar alcohols and can cause laxative effects. You can also just eat real candy or actual ice cream! Everything in moderation.