The Truth About Sugar Alcohols

light ice cream
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There’s a little something lurking in your chewing gum, hard candy, “light” ice cream, cookies and pudding. And if you have GI problems, you might want to take a hard look at your diet to see if sugar alcohols might be a hidden culprit.

“Sugar alcohols are low-calorie sweeteners, and they have been shown to have less effect on blood sugar levels, particularly for diabetics,” says Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet. “But for some people, sugar alcohols can cause stomach discomfort.”

Typically ending in “itol” on your food label, these sweeteners, such as maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol or xylitol, are found in a lot of lower-calorie, lower-fat packaged goods to add flavor. They’re also not actually alcohol. “Don’t worry,” says Gans. “It’s not like you’re taking a shot of vodka with your ice cream.” Phew. Good to know.

But that’s the major pro: Sugar alcohols are typically associated with foods that are likely low-cal alternatives to your favorite carb-y indulgences, and might help your waistline if you’re watching your weight. The con? Gas, bloating and upset stomach for some. Ick.

A lot of people get upset stomachs if they’ve constantly got hard candy or chewing gum in their mouths. If that sounds like you, try cutting out those dietary extras entirely, at least for a while, to see if you can identify and resolve issues like gas and bloating. However, if you’re not a huge gum-chewer or breath-mint-popper and you’re still experiencing these GI symptoms, your entire diet might need a quick check.

First off, sugar alcohols are typically found in packaged, processed goods. So if you’re eating enough of these additives to cause stomach discomfort, you might also be looking at a bigger issue: the overall health of your diet.

Gans would want to take a peek at what you’re eating on a typical day. “If you’re consuming one product with sugar alcohols, that’s OK,” she says. “But if you’re consuming three or four a day, I’d want to know if you’re eating enough fruit, vegetables and whole grains.”

Consuming sugar alcohols might not just be a hidden source of stomachaches, but also an indicator you’re not getting enough naturally-occurring foods. Gans suggests moderation with any sweetener—whether it’s sugar, honey, stevia or sugar alcohols.

“There’s a place for sugar alcohols, and eating foods that might be ‘light’ alternatives,” says Gans. “That said, these foods aren’t calorie-free, they aren’t carb-free, and you should always primarily be eating close to nature.”

So, start opting for berries as your sweet treat after dinner, or whip up “banana” ice cream instead of the “light” ice cream you buy by the carton. It’ll be healthier for your body, and your digestive system may just thank you, too.

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