If you have been on the low FODMAP diet, you may recognize the term polyols from the “P” in FODMAP. However, you may not know just what a polyol is and what foods contain this compound. If you look at the word polyol, you may notice the -ol ending. This ending is also seen in compounds known as sugar alcohols found in a variety of sugar-free food products. This is no coincidence since polyols are a type of sugar alcohol compound. These polyol compounds may have a versatile use in foods and drinks. But when it comes to a low FODMAP lifestyle, these ingredients can cause digestive distress that is not so sweet.
What are FODMAPs and why should I avoid them?
FODMAPs are sugars (carbohydrates) in the foods that we eat that are poorly absorbed by the gut. The intestinal bacteria in the gut can react to these foods and cause abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea and/or constipation. When foods rich in FODMAPs are removed from the diet of patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), 75% of patients will see a reduction in, or in some cases, a resolution of their GI symptoms. Reducing intake of high FODMAP foods may also help decrease GI symptoms for patients with Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis (Inflammatory Bowel Diseases or IBD). IBD patients who try the low FODMAP diet should not be having a flare.
FODMAP is an acronym for:
Fermentable (produces gas in the intestines) Oligosaccharides (fructans and galactans/GOS) Disaccharides (lactose)
Monosaccharides (excess fructose)
Polyols (sugar alcohols like sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, xylitol and isomalt)
What are polyols?
Polyols are sugar alcohols that either occur naturally in foods like fruits and vegetables or are found in food products in their synthetic form. You can find polyols in many low-sugar and sugar-free products since they provide a similar sweetness to sugar without the extra calories. Also, unlike sucrose, polyols do not pose as much risk for promoting tooth decay or elevating blood glucose levels.
Other polyols that may be less apparent since they do not end in -ol are isomalt and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates. Humans lack the enzyme needed to properly digest polyols. Therefore, a large portion of these substances travel undigested in the body and in turn ferment in the gut. When this happens, gas is produced and can cause bloating, abdominal cramping, and if consumed in excess can draw water into the large intestine. This increased water in the colon can lead osmotic diarrhea.
Foods containing polyols
The following are natural foods that contain polyols.
- Stone fruits like cherries, peaches, and plums
- Green beans (more than 25 beans contain a moderate amount of sorbitol)
- Capsicum (more than 2.8 ounces contains a high amount of sorbitol)
- Butternut squash (1/2 cup or more contains moderate to high amounts of mannitol)
- Celery (more than 1/3 medium stalk contains high amounts of mannitol)
- Sweet potato (more than 2/3 cup diced contains moderate to high amounts of mannitol)
- Dried fruit such as prunes, dried apricots, or other high polyol dried fruits
- Juices made from high polyol fruits
Processed food products can also contain polyols. Examples of high polyol processed foods include sugar-free candies, gum, jams, marmalades, or beverages. Also, some sugar-free toothpaste, medicine, or mouthwash products can also contain polyols. It is important to check the label of sugar-free or low-sugar products of any kind for any sugar alcohol content.
What to eat instead of polyols
Cutting polyols out of your diet does not mean you have to give up sweetened food products. It just means you must find sweet alternatives and perhaps opt for smaller portions of cane sugar-sweetened treats. Here are some safe sweet choices that are free of polyols.
- 1 cup chopped pineapple
- 1 medium banana
- 1-ounce dark chocolate
- ½ ounce milk or white chocolate
Take home message
Although polyols can help provide sweetness at a low-calorie cost, they can cause digestive distress when eaten in excess. Not to mention that these symptoms can be more severe in those that already have sensitive gastrointestinal systems like those with irritable bowel syndrome. Therefore, be on the lookout for foods high in polyols, and be sure to read the label for food products containing sugar alcohols. It is better to eat a little bit of something with cane sugar, then to save the calories by eating sugar alcohols and having to deal with the digestive consequences.