The Best Sweeteners for IBS

What’s the Best Sweetener for IBS? (2023)

Low FODMAP sweeteners are all the craze right now in the world of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).  But if a sweetener is low FODMAP, and it doesn’t directly trigger IBS symptoms, does that mean it’s healthy for your gut? Not necessarily!   In this article, I’ll teach you how to read between the lines from a holistic perspective, so you can choose your own best sweetener for IBS.

Disclaimer: This is not medical nutrition advice, and these lists are not exhaustive. This article was written for informational and educational purposes only. Make sure to consult with your doctor and a functional dietitian nutritionist if you’re navigating IBS, so you can receive individualized recommendations.

Affiliate disclosure: This article contains affiliate links*.  As an Amazon Associate, I may make a commission from qualifying purchases, at no extra cost to you!

What are sweeteners?

Sweeteners are essentially any type of sweet food constituent or chemically-made food-like substance available for consumers, in our modern-day food system, to make foods or beverages taste sweeter.

They’re most notorious for being added to things like coffee, tea and oatmeal, and of course in sweet treats of all kinds…

But sweeteners also hide in most other types of processed “health foods” like flavored yogurts, cereals, granola bars, protein bars, protein powders, sports drinks, breads, crackers, condiments, dressings, sauces, ready-to-eat meals, and more.

And while sugar, honey, and Splenda may be top-of-mind, there’s actually an entire spectrum of dozens of different sweeteners on the market and in our food.

Types of sweeteners

Natural and artificial

Some sweeteners are natural and minimally processed (i.e. honey, maple syrup, dates), while others are considered natural but more refined in that the nutrients are stripped during processing (i.e. cane sugar, brown sugar).

On the other end of the “natural” specturm, there are sweeteners which may technically be originally derived from a real food (like corn), but which are very far-removed from their original form! (High fructose corn syrup comes to mind here.)

There are also many different variations of artificial sweeteners (chemically made in a lab) which are calorie-free, sugar-free, and exponentially sweeter tasting compared to real sugar.

Nutritive and non-nutritive

Some sweeteners provide calories from sugar (these are called “nutritive sweeteners”) while others don’t (those are “non-nutritive sweeteners”).

Generally speaking, non-nutritive sweeteners (aka “sugar substitutes”) can be herbal, semi-natural but refined (like allulose), or artificial (made in a lab).  These types of sweeteners are only needed in much smaller quantities since they are exponentially sweeter than sugar, by volume.

Granulated, syrups, powders, and drops

Sweeteners come in lots of different forms:

  • Granulated sweeteners (like table sugar, brown sugar, Splenda, etc.) are best for baking and for sweetening coffee.
  • Syrups are liquid sweeteners which can be used in certain types of recipes (like these cacao coconut snowballs and this vegan cacao mousse).
    • Syrups and honeys also go great on pancakes and waffles.
  • Certain sweeteners come as a powder (like confectioner’s sugar) – these are usually added to coatings or frostings.
    • Non-nutritive sweeteners (i.e. stevia extract or monk fruit extract) can also sometimes come in powder form, but they’re used in much smaller quantities since they’re hundreds of times sweeter than regular sugar.
  • Some non-nutritive sweeteners are also available in the form of liquid drops (i.e. liquid stevia extract and liquid monk fruit extract); we only need a few drops of one of these herbal extracts to sweeten an entire cup of coffee or tea.

Sweeteners and your health

Natural vs refined/artificial sweeteners

Natural and minimally processed sweeteners like honey, real maple syrup, dates, and molasses are the most nutrient-dense category of sweeteners; they contain some trace minerals, and also provide antioxidiants which can help reduce inflammation in the body.  (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

This is not the case for refined, highly processed, or artificially-made sweeteners.

Glycemic index of sweeteners

Some sweeteners will raise blood sugar to varying degrees, while others don’t significantly impact blood sugar at all.

  • The rate at which a sweetener raises your blood sugar in comparison to table sugar is known as “glycemic index.”

The glycemic index of a sweetener is an important consideration for people with diabetes, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, fatty liver disease, and/or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) which will make you more prone to and impacted by big fluctuations in blood sugar.

Lastly and most importantly, each and every sweetener is going to impact the unique ecosystem microbes in your gut (aka your “gut microbiome”) – for better or worse, and in different ways.

Sweeteners and your gut

The state of your microbiome can help or hurt your gut health, and will be majorly impacted by the types of sweeteners you consume – or don’t.

But before we dive into that, please also keep in mind:

  • IBS is actually linked with a chronic underlying state of gut flora imbalance, called “dysbiosis.” (9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15)
  • I see in my clinic a lot that SIBO is often mistaken for IBS, and people with SIBO may need to move throuogh a strict low FODMAP elimination diet (with clinical supervision from a doctor and dietitian).

That said, from a symptom management standpoint, low FODMAP sweeteners are generally better tolerated than their high FODMAP counterparts, among many people with gut issues like IBS and/or SIBO.

What is the low FODMAP diet?

A low FODMAP diet is one that eliminates all foods high in FODMAPs – aka fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols.

  • These are short-chain carbohydrates found in certain types of plant-based foods which are difficult to digest and poorly absorbed in the small intestine, ultimately increasing your chances of going into an IBS flare.

Many doctors and registered dietitians are prescribing the low FODMAP diet for people who want IBS relief, because high FODMAP foods (like garlic and onions, wheat, lactose, most beans, and cruciferous veggies) – and high FODMAP sweeteners – can often trigger symptoms of gas, bloating, diarrhea, heartburn and/or abdominal pain among many people with IBS.

That being said, low FODMAP sweeteners can be a good place to start if you’re just looking to reduce some of your IBS symptoms on the surface-level.

Which sweeteners are low FODMAP?

The following sweeteners listed below are low FODMAP, due to their low levels of fructose, fructans, inulin, and polyols which are not as easily broken down and digested in the gut.

Low FODMAP nutritive sweeteners

The following tupes of sweeteners are “nutritive” which means they will raise blood glucose and get metabolized as sugar in the body.

(“Nutritive” doesn’t necessarily mean these sweeteners contain minerals/antioxidants.)

Granulated

  • Beet sugar
  • Brown sugar
  • Cane sugar
  • Coconut crystals (less than 1 tablespoon)
  • Coconut sugar (less than 1 tablespoon)
  • Coconut palm sugar (less than 1 tablespoon)
  • Maple sugar
  • Sucrose
  • Sugar in the Raw®
  • Turbinado sugar

Syrups

  • Brown rice syrup
  • Cassava syrup (untested, but speculated to be low FODMAP in small quantities i.e. less than 1 teaspoon)
  • Coconut sap/nectar/syrup (less than 1 tablespoon)
  • Corn syrup / “corn syrup solids”
  • Dextrose
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Glucose / “glucose syrup”
  • Honey (less than 1 teaspoon only)
  • Invert sugar / “invert sugar syrup” / “invert syrup”
  • Palm sugar paste
  • Real maple syrup (up to 2 tablespoons)

Powders

  • Confectioners sugar (powdered sugar)

Low FODMAP non-nutritive sweeteners

These types of sweeteners are exponentially sweeter than sugar and don’t provide us with any sugar or calories:

  • Allulose powder
  • Aspartame (Equal®, NutraSweet®)
  • Acesulfame potassium (“Asulfame K”) as a listed ingredient Sunett®, Sweet One®)
  • Monk fruit extract (Luo han guo) as a listed ingredient
  • Neotame (untested but speculated to be low FODMAP)
  • Saccharin (Sweet’N Low®, Sweet Twin®, Sugar Twin®)
  • Stevia
    • Stevia leaf extract (Stevia rebaudiana)
    • Dried stevia leaves (can  be added to tea infusions)
    • SweetLeaf® / Sweet Drops™
    • PureVia® (contains dextrose)
  • Sucralose (Splenda®)

Note:  Not all stevia or monk fruit-based produts are low FODMAP, because many are cut with a sugar alcohol called erythritol which is a polyol that I’ve seen to trigger IBS flares in many cases.

Beware of the following non-nutritive sweeteners which contain erythritol, a high FODMAP sweetener that often triggers IBS flares:

  • Monk fruit in the Raw®
  • Stevia in the Raw®
  • Truvia®

Does low FODMAP mean it’s IBS-friendly?

Yes, and no. This depends on whether we’re talking about acute or chronic IBS symptoms.

However, there are some blindspots I want to point out, so you can understand the full picture of sweeteners and gut health.

Blindspots of the low FODMAP approach

In my experience, typically, when someone is searching for low FODMAP foods and low FODMAP sweeteners, their ultimate goal is NOT really just to eat as few FODMAPs as possible – the deeper goal is to reduce and manage symptoms of IBS and/or SIBO. (If you’re reading this and you disagree, feel free to let me know!)

The caveat is that most people are under the impression that just sticking to low FODMAP foods + low FODMAP sweeteners must be their ticket to IBS relief.

But unfortunately, nutrition and gut health are not that simple or cookie-cutter!  This stuff is multidimensional by nature.

In my private functional nutrition practice, I find that very few people actually find IBS relief just from a low FODMAP diet.  In many cases, low FODMAP is not enough, and in other cases it’s unnecessarily restrictive.

Choosing a food (or sweetener in this case) solely based on whether or not it’s “low FODMAP” may be helpful from a symptom management, but it could also be doing you a disservice because it’s an incomplete approach.  FODMAPs do not address the full picture of gut heath, or health in general!

  • Some low FODMAP sweeteners are pro-inflammatory, while others are anti-inflammatory.
  • Not all low FODMAP sweeteners are low in glycemic index. (This is most relevant for people with other health issues that demand tight blood sugar control.)
  • Some of the more refined/artificial low FODMAP sweeteners like table sugar, corn syrup, invert sugar, and sucralose/Splenda can still promote the growth of bad “dysbiotic” unhealthy microbes in the gut, but without triggering immediate symptoms associated with IBS/SIBO. (16, 17, 18)
  • Some high FODMAP sweeteners (like raw honey) are prebiotic, and can sometimes even be very beneficial for gut health, such as in cases of candida overgrowth and/or dysbiosis. (19, 20)

It’s confusing because you may still need to avoid many or most/all high FODMAP sweeteners depending on the state of your gut.

The best low FODMAP sweeteners for IBS and overall health

From a holistic nutrition standpoint, the best low FODMAP sweeteners are more natural and less refined.

Best low FODMAP granulated sweeteners

Granulated sweeteners are the best choice when baking or when looking for something to sweeten your coffee/tea.

My favorite natural, minimally processed low FODMAP granulated sweeteners are:

  • Coconut sugar (less than 1 tablespoon)
  • Coconut palm sugar (less than 1 tablespoon)
  • Maple sugar (granulated)

Best IBS-friendly low FODMAP syrups

Some recipes may call for a liquid sweetener such as honey. If that’s the case, and you’re looking for some healthy low FODMAP sweeteners, I recommend trying out the following options which are generally higher in minerals and antioxidants, and not having any negative impact on gut microbes or IBS symptoms:

  • Brown rice syrup
  • Cassava syrup (less than 1 teaspoon, or as tolerated)
  • Coconut sap/nectar (less than 1 tablespoon, or as tolerated)
  • Molasses (if no fructose intolerance or SIBO)
  • Palm sugar paste
  • Raw honey (if less than 1 teaspoon, as tolerated)
  • Real maple syrup (less than 2 tablespoons, as tolerated)

Best low FODMAP non-nutritive sweeteners for IBS/dysbiosis

If you’re trying to keep your blood sugar at bay, a non-nutritive sweetener may be the best fit for you.

In my experience, the following low FODMAP non-sugar alternatives are the most natural non-nutritive sweeteners, and the least likely to negatively impact your gut microbes or overall health:

Are there any healthy, IBS-friendly high FODMAP sweeteners?

Based on my personal and clinical experience with IBS, if you don’t have SIBO or a fructose intolerance, you may or may not obe able to enjoy and benefit from certain natural, minimally processed higher FODMAP sweeteners in moderation, such as:

  • Dates
  • Date sugar (granulated)
  • Date syrup
  • Honey
  • Molasses

How to choose YOUR best sweetener for IBS

Generally speaking, the healthiest sweeteners for people with IBS are natural and minimally processed, not just because they contain minerals/antioxidants but because they have beneficial effect on gut microbes and can help dysbiosis.

These may be nutritive or non-nutritive, high FODMAP (in some cases) or low FODMAP.

Feel free to use the following list as a guide, and then narrow it down based on your indiviaul needs (with help from an IBS Food Diary* and a registered dietitian, as needed):

  • Agave nectar (if no fructose intolerance or SIBO)
  • Allulose powder* (use as 1:1 replcaement for sugar or confectioners’ sugar in recipes)


  • Raw honey (limit to 1 teaspoon or less, if fructose intolerance or SIBO are present)
  • Real maple syrup
  • SweetLeaf® liquid drops

If you have a fructose intolerance and/or SIBO, you’re better off choosing a natural and minimally processed low FODMAP sweetener from the above list.

If you’re watching your blood sugar, you may be better off choosing a significantly lower glycemic sweetener (such as real maple syrup) and/or non-nutritive sweeteners from the above list.

More resources

For more information on navigating sweeteners and IBS, feel free to check out these articles:

Conclusions

Are low FODMAP sweeteners generally better tolerated by many people with IBS? In many cases – yes.

But is that the full story when it comes to choosing the best sweeteners for improving your gut health? Absolutely not!

For the above reasons, I’ve found (through personal and clinical experience and from my research) that the more natural + minimally processed low FODMAP sweeteners used in moderation, in place of their refined/artificial counterparts, generally have a more positive overall health-promoting impact on the gut and in other ways.

In some cases, higher FODMAP natural sweeteners like dates, honey, and molasses can also be well-tolerated and beneficial for some peole with IBS (if you don’t have SIBO or a fructose intolerance), when used in replacement of refined alternatives (which are more likely to feed dysbiotic microbes).

Either way, at the end of the day, sweeteners should be consumed in moderation. (Even though  there are certain antioxidants and health benefits associated with certain types of nutritive sweeteners, it doesn’t mean they’re “health foods” to be consumed in large quantities!) 😉

Feel free to use the above lists as a guide, but don’t forget to listen to your body.

If you’d like to learn more about my holistic approach to gut health, make sure to download a copy of my free gut health nutrition guide (below):

5 Diet Mistakes to Avoid When Healing Your Gut!

Free Download - 5 Diet Mistakes to Avoid When Healing Your Gut - by Jenna Volpe RDN LD CLT

XO – Jenna