What Are Polyols - Exploring the P in FODMAP

What are Polyols? Exploring the “P” in FODMAP

“What are Polyols? Exploring the ‘P’ in FODMAP” was written by Salisha Sial, B.A. (New York University graduate student in public health and nutritional sciences) and reviewed, edited and updated by Jenna Volpe, RDN, LD, CLT.

If you’ve been prescribed a low FODMAP elimination diet for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), it won’t take long before you hear about polyols – aka sugar alcohols in the diet which have been found to often trigger IBS symptoms.

Read on to learn more about what polyols are, how and why they can impact IBS symptoms, the different types of polyols in food, which foods are highest in polyols, and how to know if you have a polyol intolerance.

Disclaimer: As always, consult your primary care doctor and a FODMAP-literate gut health dietitian nutritionist for customized diet advice tailored to your bio-individual needs.

What are polyols?

Chemically, polyols are hydroxyl-functionalized oligomers which contain various amounts of “–OH” (hydroxyl) chemical formula groups.  

There are many different types of polyols out there, and most of them (like those found in polyester material, for example) actually have nothing to do with food. (1)

When it comes to nutrition and gut health, the family of food-derived polyols in food includes various types of sugar alcohols. They have alcohol-like properties; however, they aren’t alcohols nor are they classified as sugars. (1)

Some are naturally occurring in certain types of fruits and veggies, while others can be found in marine algae or even some trees. (2

Certain sugar alcohols (such as erythritol) also get produced and harvested as a bi-product when yeast ferments sugar. (3)

Lastly, sugar alcohols may get chemically extracted, concentrated, and commercially-made into sweeteners, gums, and fillers for lower-calorie, no-added-sugar processed foods. (Think: xylitol, erythritol, and sorbitol!)

From a gut health nutrition standpoint, polyols represent the letter “P” in the acronym “FODMAP”.  (“FODMAP” stands for “Fermentable Oligo-saccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, And Polyols.”)

Before we dive into the impact of polyols on IBS symptoms, let’s review the 8 different types of polyols you can find in food at this time.

8 types of polyols in food (list)

As mentioned earlier, certain polyols are naturally occurring in some foods.

Commercially, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of 8 different types of polyols in food (1):

  1. Erythritol
  2. Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH)
  3. Isomalt
  4. Lactitol
  5. Maltitol
  6. Mannitol
  7. Sorbitol
  8. Xylitol

When it comes to processed foods, you can generally determine the amount of sugar alcohols (polyols) it contains per serving by checking the nutrition fact label.

  • Scroll down to “Total Sugars”, which falls under “Total Carbohydrates” and there you may find the “Sugar Alcohols” sub-category.
  • It should say “0 grams” to “0.5 grams” of sugar alcohols per serving or less, for a food product to be considered low in polyols.

Now, let’s dive into details and specifics!

Erythritol

Erythritol is the only polyol that isn’t considered highly fermentable in the gut.  For this reason, erythritol is generally the safest type of polyol to try on a low FODMAP diet.

You may encounter erythritol as a high-volume filler in most powdered variations of stevia and monk fruit.

Recommended reading:

Erythritol is also the low-sugar sweetener of choice for keto sweet treats on the market such as ice cream, chocolate, and baked goods since it’s generally low cost and high-volume.

However, we’ve noticed that erythritol isn’t usually well tolerated among folks with IBS.

Recommended reading:

Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH)

HSH is is a liquid substance which is a bi-product from hydrolyzing corn, wheat, or other carbohydrates.

This category of polyols often added to non-food substances, including but not limited to:

  • Shampoos
  • Conditioners
  • Hair gel
  • Body washes
  • Facial cleansers
  • Makeup
  • Shaving cream

In foods, you may find hydrogenated starch hydrolysates hiding on the ingredient list as glucose syrups, maltitol syrup, hydrogenated glucose syrup, polyglycitol, polyglucitol, or “HSH”. (4)

They can often be found in low-calorie processed foods and protein bars.

Hydrogenated starch hydrolysates are generally safe in small quantities from a health standpoint; however, they can potentially trigger IBS symptoms since it’s poorly digested. (4)

Isomalt

Isomalt is a type of polyol and sugar alcohol which you’ll find most often as an additive in cough drops and “no-added-sugar” candies.

(If you’re a candy enthusiast with a sweet tooth, make sure to check out our latest low FODMAP candy picks!)

Lactitol (E966/966)

Lactitol is a type of sugar alcohol which gets produced by hydrogenating lactose (aka “milk sugar”). (5)

It isn’t found in nature; it’s produced industrially. (6)

Aside from being added to some low-calorie, no-added sugar sweets, lactitol has ironically been shown to be clinically effective as a laxative for treating constipation. (7)

You may also encounter lactitol as a filler in certain pharmaceuticals and supplements.

Maltitol (E965/965)

Maltitol is commonly used as a bulk sweetener in certain diet food products, such as diet baked goods, sugar-free candy, diet jams, and some low-sugar ice creams. (8)

Like most of the other polyols in food, maltitol has been shown to trigger IBS symptoms such as diarrhea and abdominal in relatively small quantities. (8)

In larger doses, maltitol has been shown to cause fetal abnormalities and birth defects according to the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. (8)

While the FDA has approved maltitol as a “generally recognized as safe” sweetener and filler, there’s still very limited research on its long-term safety.

TLDR:  You may want to avoid maltitol, especially if you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant.

Mannitol (E421/421)

If you’ve eaten mushrooms, cauliflower, watermelon, raw fennel, and/or celery, you’ve eaten mannitol. (9)

According to Monash University, certain lower FODMAP foods such as sweet potato and butternut squash also contain some mannitol, in smaller quantities than their high FODMAP veggie counterparts. (0)

Sorbitol (E420/420)

Sorbitol is naturally found in high FODMAP stone fruits (9) such as:

  • Apples
  • Apricots
  • Avocados
  • Cherries
  • Pears
  • Peaches
  • Plums
  • Prunes

You can also find commercially-made sorbitol in some sugar-free gums and mints, and as a filler in supplements/pharmaceuticals, natural shampoos, and other non-food products.

Xylitol (E967/967)

Xylitol is a popular, recently trending type of sugar alcohol which is naturally present in some fruits, veggies, and even beech tree wood, but only at very low concentrations. (10)

If you’re consuming significant quantities of xylitol in food, it’s the commercial type which must first undergo an extensive extraction process.

About 70% of xylitol in can be found in chewing gum and sugar-free confectionary products.  (10)

You can also find xylitol in some types of dietary supplements, lozenges, mouthwash, natural toothpaste, and other natural variations of personal hygiene products.

Can dogs eat xylitol?

No!  Xylitol is very toxic to dogs, even in small quantities.  If you’re a dog parent, make sure you’re scouring product labels and keeping any xylitol-containing products out of reach from your precious fur babies.

Now that we’ve covered each type of polyol you can find in food, let’s dive deeper into how polyols can potentially impact your IBS.

Polyols and IBS, explained

Like other types of FODMAPs, polyols in our diet are relatively large molecules which are difficult to break down – and subsequently poorly absorbed in your small intestine.

When polyols (sugar alcohols) aren’t fully digested and absorbed, they make their way into your large intestine.

Here, they may either get fermented by microbes in your gut, or they can also pull water into your colon (by osmosis) as your body’s way of trying to dilute the concentration of these large molecules.

If your digestive system struggles to break down the polyols in your diet, meals/snacks high in polyols may lead to a cascade of unwanted IBS symptoms such as gas, bloating, abdominal cramping, and/or diarrhea.

Frequently asked questions (FAQ’s)

How do I know if I have a polyol intolerance?

If you consume foods high in polyols such as “no sugar added” desserts sweetened with xylitol or erythritol, and notice you feel gassy/bloated within the next few hours, you may have a polyol intolerance. 

IBS symptoms like gas, bloating, abdominal pain, and/or diarrhea will usually start within 30 minutes-two hours after you eat foods high in polyols.

Following a low FODMAP elimination and reintroduction diet, which entails eliminating all high FODMAP foods and then gradually reintroducing high-polyol foods apart from other types of high FODMAP foods is the most effective and efficient way to rule out or pinpoint a polyol intolerance.

Keeping a detailed food-symptom journal and consulting a FODMAP-trained gut health dietitian for clinical supervision and custom guidance can’t hurt, and can help tremendously.

Is xylitol low FODMAP?

No! Xylitol is considered high FODMAP, in relatively small quantities.

Is sorbitol low FODMAP?

No, sorbitol is generally not low FODMAP. 

However, your ability to tolerate foods high in sorbitol will be unique to you.

When in doubt, keep a food-symptom journal, consult an expert, and always listen to your body!

Is erythritol low FODMAP?

Yes, and no.

Erythritol, compared to its counterparts, is the only sugar alcohol that isn’t on the list of high FODMAP sweeteners to avoid – because unlike other types of sugar alcohol, erythritol doesn’t ferment in the intestines.

However, this doesn’t mean you will tolerate erythritol if you have IBS.  And you won’t find erythritol on the Monash FODMAP app’s list of tested and approved low FODMAP sweeteners.  

(Learn more about erythritol and IBS here.)

More resources

The bottom line

Polyols in food are a group of high FODMAP, short-chain carbohydrates called sugar alcohols.

You can find sugar alcohols in certain fruits/veggies and other plants, gums, candy, chocolate, ice cream, and other desserts.  (The appeal of commercially-made sugar alcohols is to make desserts and gums with “no added sugar”.)

There isn’t a universally safe amount of polyols that works for everyone with IBS.  Your oral tolerance to polyols will be unique to you.  However, if you have IBS and/or SIBO, you’re generally more likely to have a polyol intolerance compared to the general population. 

Keeping a detailed food-symptom journal and consulting a FODMAP-trained registered dietitian 1-1 can help you gain clarity on whether or not you can tolerate foods high in polyols, and how much.

If you have a polyol intolerance, you may find that eating high polyol foods triggers IBS symptoms like gas, bloating, stomach pain and/or diarrhea within a few hours afterwards.  In this case, sticking to low FODMAP fruits and veggies, low FODMAP desserts, low FODMAP candy/chocolate, and low FODMAP sugars/sweeteners may help prevent/reduce symptoms and improve your quality of life.

Next steps

Avoiding polyols may help reduce your IBS symptoms… however, we don’t recommend staying on a low FODMAP diet long-term.

Make sure you’re working with a holistic-minded treatment team to help you uncover and address the underlying root cause(s) of your polyol intolerance.  (Otherwise, you can find yourself stuck in a perpetual state of dietary restrictions and food intolerances indefinitely.)

If you’d like to learn more about how to identify underlying root causes of IBS symptoms and food intolerances, make sure to download this free PDF guide:  5 Common Diet Mistakes to Avoid on Your Gut-Healing Journey! Free Download - 5 Diet Mistakes to Avoid When Healing Your Gut - by Jenna Volpe RDN LD CLT

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