The best and worst sweeteners for your gut
THE SWEETENER WAR HAS been raging for decades, though the battlefront shifts often – from debates over sugar versus fructose, refined versus unrefined, natural sweeteners versus artificial, caloric versus non-caloric and more.
I've more or less remained neutral in such scuffles. The way I see it, different people have different health needs, and different sweeteners will make sense for different people. What matters more is making sure sweeteners of any kind aren't such a big part of your diet that your overall health suffers.
Healthfulness considerations aside, though, different sweeteners affect the gastrointestinal tract differently – a point that should also be taken into account when figuring out which type is right for you. Here's how the most common types stack up, gut-wise:
I call these sweeteners "GI neutral" because the vast majority of people can consume them in pretty high doses without experiencing digestive distress. That's because these sweeteners are very easily absorbed in our digestive tracts. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that doing so is necessarily healthy.
My patients are often surprised when I tell them that white ("refined" or "table") sugar makes this list. But if you divorce philosophical or moral opinions from consideration and focus purely on physiology, you'll see that the human body was designed to absorb sugar quickly, easily and completely. Simple sugars like glucose, maltose and sucrose are therefore unlikely to provoke digestive distress in the vast majority of people. Because maple syrup is primarily composed of sucrose, it has a pretty neutral effect on the digestive tract, too. (There are exceptions for people who have undergone certain intestinal surgeries that alter the digestive tract anatomy. For them, simple sugars can pose a significant problem called "dumping syndrome" that results in diarrhea, dizziness and weakness.)
Among the non-caloric sweeteners, there are examples of both natural and artificial sweeteners that pass through the digestive process without stirring up any drama. Aspartame, saccharin andacesulfame potassium are the artificial sweeteners that are best tolerated digestively, though the Center for Science in the Public Interest has raised safety concerns about chronic use of all three of them. Among the natural sweeteners, stevia and monkfruit extract shouldn't aggravate sensitive bowels, either, though beware for branded products like Truvia that blend these ingredients with other less digestively-friendly ones like erythritol.
The Least GI-Friendly
The "ols" are a family of very low-calorie sweeteners that can be both naturally derived (xylitol comes from wood pulp; sorbitol occurs naturally in many fruits) or synthesized in a lab. Sometimes, they're referred to as "polyols" or "sugar alcohols." They're low in calories because they're so difficult for our guts to absorb; if we can't absorb them, then we can't access their calories, after all. The side effects of malabsorbing such small sugar-like molecules are – surprise, surprise – gas and (sometimes explosive) diarrhea. In fact, several of these ingredients are added to constipating medications precisely because of their laxative properties!
You're likely to encounter sugar alcohols in medications; sugar-free gum and candies; low-carb and low-sugar energy bars; "no sugar added" or "sugar-free" frozen yogurt, cookies and cakes; and chewable vitamins or supplements. The more of these sweeteners you consume, the greater the chance that you'll fall victim to their laxative effects.