So you’ve cut out all the usual suspects when it comes to bloating like cruciferous vegetables, legumes, and dairy, but you’re still feeling the effects of a bubble belly. One culprit that people often overlook is that of their natural sweetener. They are found in things like gum, and baking goods and are often added to drinks like tea or coffee. They are products like erythritol and xylitol.
These things make your food sweet and are known as sugar alcohols. Being lower in calories, they are an excellent way to control your caloric intake all the while enjoying something sweet. And if you have diabetes they are a great way of managing your after meal blood sugar spikes as they are low on the glycemic index. When compared to sugar they contain a fraction of the calories and still function as a sweetening agent. Erythritol contains just 0.2 calories per gram and xylitol contains 2.4 calories per gram. And they do not contribute to dental plaque.
They are called sugar alcohols because molecularly speaking they have things in common with both. Like sugars, they have a hydroxyl group (O-H) on every carbon atom in the chain. But they are different from regular sugars in that they do not have end carbonyl groups (C=O). Instead, they have end hydroxyl groups which are more like alcohol. In Erythritol the OH group is bonded to the first carbon atom of the molecule instead of the carbonyl. Due to its chemical structure, erythritol is absorbed much less by our body and provides much less energy.
The Erythritol we use is produced at an industrial scale using corn as a starting material. With a hydrolysis process, the starch from corn is broken down into smaller glucose molecules. Then the glucose must be fermented to achieve erythritol. A fungus is introduced to the glucose, Moniliella pollinis, and it performs the fermentation. At this stage, the glucose carbonyl group is connected to a hydroxyl group, and the molecule goes from 6 carbon atoms to just 4. The product is then purified through several steps where fermentation materials are removed.
Xylitol, on the other hand, is also made from corn. The source material is called xylan and needs to be broken down in a process called acid hydrolyzing. This requires a high temperature and a catalyst known as Raney nickel. After this process known as hydrogenation, we are left with xylose and acetic acid. The acidic acid needs to be removed, and this is done by heating it so it can evaporate. The resulting syrup is pure xylose which must be stabilized into a crystallized sugar alcohol by mixing it with ethanol. A few spins in a centrifuge later and you’ve got xylitol.
Sugar alcohols in your stomach
However, the main thing to note about sugar alcohols likes erythritol and xylitol are that they are not absorbed by the body in the same way as regular sugar. They are often passed into the stomach where they ferment. Xylitol and Erythritol are both known as FODMAP’s (fermentable, oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols) which means some people cannot digest them in the small intestine. When they reach the colon, the flora there break it down and ferment it, which makes a significant amount of gas. Some can consume both of these without consequences while others suffer from near IBS like symptoms.
For more information on how FODMAP’s affect the stomach, check out this study.
So if you’ve been consuming lots of erythritol or xylitol in your coffee or tea and are feeling tremendously bloated as a result, don’t worry other options are just as sweet. Stevia, which is a plant from South America has been bred for a long time due it’s sweet nature. If you buy it in a store, you are getting a refined version, but the benefits are the same. It’s been shown to reduce blood pressure, lower blood sugar in diabetics, and may even prevent heart disease.
Another option is monk fruit sweeteners, which are 300-400 times sweeter than traditional cane sugar. It contains no calories and has no effect on blood sugar. It has been known to fight free radicals and lower risk of obesity and diabetes while acting as an anti-inflammatory.
Remember that sugar alcohols are not processed in the body the same way as traditional sweeteners, and they might be the culprit behind your bloating. Feel free to indulge your sweet tooth without fear of bloating or gas with natural alternatives like stevia or monk fruit.