What Are Polyols and Why Can They Cause IBS? Part One

By Yvonne Quincey-de Guzman

Polyols sound playful, and little bit like characters in a Disney movie, you know the “baddies” of the story line. In real life, this isn’t that far from the truth, especially when consumed in large quantities. Polyols at higher intakes (more than 20-30 grams) feed gut bacteria and produce gas.

Sugar alcohols, a family of sweeteners also known as "polyols", are used as food additives. They occur naturally in small amounts in fruits and vegetables, including berries, apples, and plums, but for large-scale commercial use, they are manufactured from common sugars. Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates, isomalt, lactitol, maltitol, maltitol syrup, mannitol, sorbitol, sorbitol syrup, xylitol and erythritol, are just some of the polyols currently added to foods in a commercial capacity that you can find on your favorite manufactured foods ingredients lists.

Polyols are often used as artificial sweeteners such as sucralose and aspartame. They taste like sugar with only about half the calories. They are used as food ingredients to replace sugar in an increasing variety of sugar-free and reduced-calorie foods and beverages for their functional and health benefits. It is appealing to those in the fitness industry because the sugar alcohols can be metabolized into energy, but they don‘t trigger an insulin response because absorption of glucose and caloric sugars is slowed in their presence, says Luke Bucci, PhD, vice president of research at Schiff Nutrition International.

However, when larger quantities of sugar alcohols are consumed, our tummies can often rebel. Consuming more than 50 grams of polyols can pull water into the gut, causing loose stools or temporary diarrhea, and that they can stay in your system 12-24 hours. This phenomena happens as the polyols remain only partially digested in the small intestines. As they remain undigested, they pull water into the large and small bowels, becoming rapidly fermented by the intestinal bacteria, resulting in bloating, gut distension and diarrhea. Some countries require the packaging on foods containing these products to state the following on the label “Excess consumption may have a laxative effect.”

We seem to have a varied perception of the GI effects of polyols. For example, while some my experience pain and discomfort, other perceive the symptoms as a “sign” of the fibre working-effect. Depending on an individual’s sensitivity, quantity eaten and type of polyol-containing product, each person will have their own unique experience and sensitivity.

What should you do if you are sensitive to polyols? Any GI effects from consuming foods with polyols, if they occur at all, are usually mild and temporary. If a person believes she/he is negatively affected, the amount eaten on a single occasion should be reduced. Most people will adapt to polyols after a few days, the same way they do to other high fiber foods. Many people have learned to eat only a small amount of sugar-free products at first and then to gradually increase these foods in the diet. As with any other food, consume foods containing polyols in moderate amounts.

FODMAP Friendly Certified products are low in polyols and tested for compliance. In Part 2 of our blog series for IBS Awareness month, we will discuss how foods like Lewis & Son’s Sauerkraut and Naturally Fermented Pickled Cucumbers meet the standards for FODMAP Friendly Certification.