Embarking on the quest for the perfect sugar substitute when you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)… or anything else masquerading as IBS – like small interstitial bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or a sucrose intolerance – sure isn’t a cake-walk!
Many folks are turning to erythritol, a commonly used sugar alcohol added to all sorts of trending food products – because it doesn’t contain any sugar or sucrose. But is erythritol low FODMAP, and is it IBS-friendly?
Contrary to its widespread popularity and mainstream narratives, erythritol isn’t for everyone.
The insights and perspectives I’m about to share about erythritol and IBS are all based on a combination of the latest research, the Monash FODMAP app, my first-hand anecdotal experience as a former IBS sufferer, and my clinical observations as a gut health dietitian in private practice since 2014.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is generalized, and should not replace 1-1 medical and nutritional advice from your treatment team.
Make sure to consult your doctor(s) and a registered dietitian / holistic nutritionist to receive custom dietary advice tailored to your individual needs!
Table of Contents
What exactly is erythritol?
Erythritol is a type of sugar alcohol (alongside sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol) which is naturally occurring in some foods (specifically wine, beer, mushrooms, watermelon, pears, grapes, and soy sauce). (1, 2)
There isn’t enough naturally-occurring erythritol in food for it to be extracted naturally. So erythritol as a sweetener in our modern-day food system gets made in a lab commercially, using glucose and yeast.
- To break it down: Erythritol is a bi-product which gets produced and extracted via the fermentation of glucose by a specific type of yeast. (1)
Erythritol in foods
This sweetener is naturally low-sucrose, and 30% less sweet than sucrose (table sugar) – but exponentially lower in calories. (1)
You’ve likely encountered erythritol in protein bars, protein shakes/powders, keto-friendly desserts (like ice cream and chocolate) and the likes, because it’s an easy way to provide sweetness – without the added sugar/sucrose.
The above attributes make erythritol extra appealing as a sugar alternative for folks looking to reduce their intake of sugar (or calories in general)…
But what about for those of us navigating gut issues, which are often accompanied by a low FODMAP elimination diet?
- According to research from the last few years, ~52-86% of people with IBS… or 3 out of every 4 IBS sufferers on average, found that they feel better after eliminating FODMAPs – “ Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides And Polyols” – from their diet. (3)
Is erythritol low FODMAP?
In short, the jury is still out!
According to Monash University (the leading authority on all things FODMAPs), sugar alcohols – including erythritol – are all considered polyols (the “P” in the FODMAP acronym).
However, erythritol has not yet been officially tested and Monash-approved as a “low FODMAP sweetener.”
However, erythritol also isn’t listed as a high FODMAP sweetener to avoid.
(As you can check out below, based on my search results, erythritol is not yet included in the Monash FODMAP database – as of January 7, 2024).
In summary, here’s what Monash University and the research are implying about erythritol:
- On the one hand, erythritol is a type of polyol – and polyols are notorious for being an entire class of FODMAPs which can create problems by drawing water into the colon by osmosis… subsequently leading to unwanted IBS symptoms like gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
- On the other hand, erythritol may potentially be the among only few polyols that don’t have unwanted gut side effects.
- One study indicated erythritol seems to be more easily absorbed in the small intestine (up to 90% absorbed) compared to other polyols… so only 10% of the erythritol you consumed is actually entering your colon. (4)
- This study also noted that erythritol was resistant to microbial fermentation in the colon – which means it isn’t high FODMAP.
Translation: theoretically, based on what we know about erythritol, it’s less likely to cause gas and bloating compared to other sugar alcohols. So erythritol is most likely a low FODMAP sweetener, when consumed in moderation.
Erythritol, IBS and Gut Health
The limited research we have on erythritol and gut health is sounding promising, so far… on paper. But what about erythritol in real life?
My verdict is that in real life, whether or not you can tolerate erythritol totally depends on your bio-individuality, as well as the amount and frequency at which you’re consuming this sugar alcohol.
I personally don’t consume erythritol on a regular basis, cause it will mess with my digestion. (I’ve been in remission from IBS since 2014, so I’m pretty tuned into this stuff!)
In my private practice, I’ve encouraged my clients (with or without IBS) who ask about erythritol to give it a try, in order to better understand how this sweetener impacts them – and I’ve gotten very mixed feedback.
So, my understanding is that erythritol is tolerated by some people with IBS in moderation – but not others.
Related article: What’s the Best Sweetener for IBS?
Erythritol and SIBO
So, we’ve established that erythritol is most likely low FODMAP, and it’s relatively well broken down in your intestines.
But there’s more to the story!
When it comes to SIBO, you’ll need to be mindful of chewing gum and sipping on sweet beverages in between meals – cause it can shut off something called your “Migrating Motor Complex” (MMC).
- This is like a built-in broom, which is part of your gut’s natural motility – sweeping unwanted debris (like microbes) down and OUT of your intestines, to keep things clean in there!
The latest research has found that sipping on sweetened beverages or too much snacking in between meals isn’t good for SIBO, if you plan on staying in remission after getting treated.
(We’re talking more about how to address SIBO holistically, in the next upcoming cohort of my signature online program, The Gut Code™!)
How to know whether erythritol is right for you
If you’re determined to explore the possibility of incorporating erythritol into your diet here are a few tips on how to know for sure:
Trial and observation
Introduce erythritol cautiously, in small amounts, and observe how your body reacts.
This approach allows you to gauge your individual tolerance and make informed decisions about its inclusion in your diet.
Consult an expert
Before making significant dietary changes, consult with your healthcare provider (such as a registered dietitian) who can provide personalized advice based on your bio-individual health needs and preferences.
Alternatives to erythritol
If you’re looking to reduce your sugar intake, but erythritol proves to be problematic for you, I recommend considering a more natural alternative sugar substitute such as stevia or monk fruit.
Frequently asked questions
Is erythritol low sucrose?
Yes – erythritol is naturally a low-sucrose sweetener, making it a suitable alternative sweetener for some (but not all) people with a sucrose intolerance for the same reasons I mentioned above.
Is erythritol high FODMAP?
The jury is still out, since erythritol isn’t yet listed in the Monash FODMAP App database.
But based on the latest research, unlike other polyols, erythritol is most likely NOT high in FODMAPs.
Is erythritol IBS friendly?
The limited research we have at this time is suggesting that erythritol is IBS-friendly.
However, based on my first-hand experience as a gut health dietitian and former IBS sufferer, I’ve concluded that erythritol may or may not be IBS-friendly for you, depending on your bio-individuality.
When in doubt: listen to your body, consult your treatment team, and enjoy erythritol-sweetened products sparingly (as tolerated!).
What’s the difference between sugar and sugar alcohol?
Sugar (sucrose) is a disaccharide made up of a glucose molecular and a fructose molecule, joint together.
Sugar alcohols, on the other hand, are polyols which, while naturally occurring in foods, are commercially made in a lab using various biochemical processes.
From a nutritional standpoint, sugar will raise blood sugar levels, and it provides us with a source of energy, in the form of 4 calories per gram of sugar.
Sugar alcohols are ~30% less sweet than sugar, but they also don’t raise blood sugar or provide significant calories – so they’re popular sugar alternatives in food.
The FODMAP content of regular sugar is generally lower than the FODMAP content of most sugar alcohols, except for erythritol (the jury is still out!).
Sugar alcohols (except for erythritol) are poorly absorbed by the small intestine, and tend to be high in FODMAPs while sugar is not.
Is erythritol safe?
To date, erythritol is considered to be “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) according to the Food & Drug Administration.
From a holistic health standpoint, I also find erythritol to be much safer than artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (Equal), saccharin (Sweet & Low), and sucralose (Splenda).
- Read more about sucralose and IBS here!
Does erythritol feed candida?
If you’re familiar with my approach in addressing IBS and IBD, you likely know by now that dysbiosis and candida overgrowth are two very common underlying causes of IBS-like symptoms!
So, a part pillar #3 of of my holistic 6-part framework for resolving gut issues is to remove foods that feed candida overgrowth (if candida is a root cause of your gut issues).
My understanding (based on research) is that while erythritol does NOT feed candida overgrowth, certain strains of candida seem to actually produce large quantities of erythritol as a bi-product, when given glucose and/or fructose. (5, 6, 7)
This is pretty interesting, to say the least!
(Whether or not this is good or bad, is yet to be determined. But… as someone who likes to think critically from a holistic lens, this may explain why so many of my clients don’t feel good after consuming erythritol – or why I can’t tolerate too many consecutive days of erythritol consumption.)
Is erythritol healthier than stevia?
Since the research on these sweeteners is pretty sparse, I can’t yet give you a research-backed answer to this question!
However, as a holistic-minded clinician, my opinion is that organic stevia extract (which is essentially a type of herbal tincture, or alcohol extract of the stevia plant) is probably healthier than erythritol. 😉
…Time will tell!
(When in doubt, listen to your body and consult with your treatment team.)
What’s the best sweetener for IBS?
A traditional registered dietitian will tell you that the best sweetener for IBS is a low FODMAP sweetener.
(Think beyond symptom management.)
In short, the best sweetener for IBS depends on your bio-individuality in terms of your gut microbiome, your digestive sufficiency, enzyme production, and insulin efficiency (to name a few factors).
If you’d like to go down this rabbit hole with me, feel free to read more about how to choose the best sweetener for IBS here!
- 51 Drool-Worthy Low FODMAP Desserts for IBS (Functional Nutritionist Picks)
- The Best Low FODMAP Candy and Chocolate for IBS: Holistic Gut Health Dietitian Picks
- Is Maple Syrup Low FODMAP? (Expert Guidance on Maple Syrup and IBS)
- Honey For IBS: Benefits & Contraindications
The bottom line
While erythritol has gained popularity as a low-calorie sugar substitute, this unique polyol may or may not be the best sweetener if you’re dealing with gut imbalances such as IBS, SIBO, IBD or sucrase-isomaltase deficiency.
The research on erythritol is limited, so we don’t yet have enough information to formally classify erythritol as a low FODMAP sweetener.
Many people are talking behind-the-scenes about how the potential digestive discomfort associated with erythritol outweighs its sweet benefits.
The fact that erythritol gets produced by certain strains of candida (following sugar consumption) is something to think about, for sure! I’m interested to learn more about how that impacts our gut.
Remember, your journey is unique, and what has worked well for others may or may not work for you.
Listen to your body, consult with professionals, and discover the sweet solutions that best support your digestive health!
If you’d like to stay in touch and learn more about what I have to say on all things gut health, holistic & functional nutrition and herbal medicine, I invite you to download my free gut health nutrition guide:
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XX – Jenna