Are Artificial Sweeteners (like Maltitol) Bad for Your Gut?
What is Maltitol?
Maltitol is a sugar alcohol that is generally used as an artificial sweetener. It is used in food products like sugar-free chocolates, energy bars, bakery items, and chewing gums. Maltitol has fewer calories and a lower GI than table sugar but just like sugar, it does not add any nutritive value to your food product. This sugar alcohol may cause gut issues in some individuals.
Maltitol vs Sugar: Are they any different?
Sugar or refined sugar or table sugar is crystalline sucrose. Sucrose is a type of simple carbohydrate which is naturally found in fruits, and honey, but is the most concentrated in sugarcane. When sugarcane undergoes the refining process, sucrose is completely extracted from it to produce crystalline sugar. So, the sugar we all use at home to bake or sweeten coffee or tea is nothing but sucrose.
On the other hand, maltitol is a sugar alcohol. Although it has nothing to do with alcohol, it derives its name because of its chemical structure. Of all the sugar alcohols, maltitol’s properties are the most like sucrose. Maltitol is generally considered as a sugar substitute. It is used in food items such as baked goods, chewing gum, sugar-free chocolates, candies, and ice cream to give sweetness. Although it is regarded as a safe sugar alternative, it is still not a healthy one. It is thought to cause many gastrointestinal issues like gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
Both sugar and maltitol have more or less the same calorie count. They both affect your blood glucose levels. And most importantly, both of them are processed and artificial.
Considering the above, quitting sugar is a great idea but choosing maltitol as a sugar alternative is not going to be healthy. It is better to choose sugar substitutes that are natural, safe, and healthy, you can choose natural sweeteners made from stevia, monk fruit, or erythritol.
Maltitol: Side Effects and Risks
Maltitol is a low-calorie artificial sweetener. It falls under the category of sugar alcohols, and sugar alcohols are not alcohol. The essential properties of a sweetener are its low glycemic index, minimum calories, and low carbs. However, maltitol has a decent glycemic index of 35 which is less than sugar but it will still affect your blood sugar levels.
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists maltitol as a GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) substance. So, it is safe for most people. Maltitol may not cause any long-term negative health impacts, but it can cause bloating, gas or diarrhea. These gut problems happen because maltitol is not completely absorbed during digestion. Instead, when it reaches the large intestine, it becomes fermented by bacteria, which can potentially cause gastric symptoms. The FDA requires products containing over 50 grams of maltitol to carry a warning about potential laxative effects. However, it is an artificial sweetener and there are several natural sweeteners available these days that are far better and completely safe when compared to maltitol. These natural sweeteners are more like zero-calorie sugar with zero GI, zero calories, and zero carb content.
Why does maltitol cause explosive diarrhea?
Maltitol is a sugar substitute that is commercially used in baked goods, chewing gums, candies, gummies, etc. But a lot of people complain about cramping, bloating, and diarrhea post-consumption of foods containing maltitol. It is because maltitol does have a laxative effect and is associated with frequent diarrhea. This happens because maltitol is not fully digested by your body. The undigested part of the sugar alcohol travels to your large intestines and gets fermented by the gut bacteria causing gastric issues like bloating and cramping. Secondly, these undigested molecules draw water into the digestive tract because of the osmotic pressure and it might create an urgent urge for you to poop or experience diarrhea. As per FDA, maltitol foods with more than 50 grams per serving are required to include a laxative warning. Hence, people with a sensitive gut or any gut problems like irritable gut syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease should avoid consuming foods and sweeteners containing maltitol. Rather you can choose better sugar replacements like stevia or monk fruit or even erythritol which is considered safe sugar alcohol with no major gut health problems.
It is true that if you eat foods containing maltitol (sugar-free gummy bears), you will suddenly get horrible diarrhea.
The answer to this question lies in the nutrition label of your sugar-free gummy bears. Sugar-free gummy bears are usually made using maltitol (sugar alcohol) as a sugar alternative. Maltitol is a sugar alcohol that is almost as sweet as table sugar but contains half of the calories of sugar. This may make you believe that it is a good sugar substitute but this is not the case. Maltitol does not get digested in our gut and thus, moves to the large intestines, undigested. As a result, it gets fermented by gut bacteria. The fermentation results in building gas, bloating, and in certain cases, “horrible diarrhea.”
Another point of consideration here can be -the undigested molecules of maltitol draw water inside the gut through osmosis, creating a laxative effect.
Therefore, it is always better to read and check the nutrition labels of the processed products you buy, especially if you are someone with a sensitive gut or any other gut health problem. This is because most artificial sweeteners (here maltitol) are known to cause gastric discomfort. Many people are using these sweeteners as a sugar substitute but instead one must choose natural sweeteners like stevia, monk fruit, or erythritol.
Do other sugar alcohols (sorbitol, xylitol, erythritol) also cause a laxative effect?
Sugar alcohols (like maltitol or sorbitol, and even xylitol) are a type of carbohydrate called polyols. They are called sugar alcohols because of their structure which resembles both sugar and alcohol, however, they do not cause any effects like alcohol. These sugar alcohols are not completely digested and so, their indigested parts travel to the large intestines. These further get fermented in the large intestines and cause bloating, gas, or even cramps. Plus, these indigested molecules tend to draw water into the digestive tract by osmosis which created an urge to use the washroom and may even result in diarrhea. This explains their laxative effect and why they are referred to as osmotic laxatives.
However, sugar alcohol like erythritol is not known to cause any such effects.
Foods containing sugar alcohols, sorbitol, mannitol, maltitol, etc. do cause gastric disturbance like bloating, gas, cramps, or even diarrhea. This happens because these sugar alcohols do not get digested and absorbed completely and travel to your large intestines where they get fermented by the gut bacteria. The fermentation results in building these gastric problems. However, this is not the case with all sugar alcohols. Erythritol, another sugar alcohol, is known for not causing any such major gut health problems. So, if you want to select a food product or a sweetener that is free of sorbitol, maltitol, xylitol, you can go ahead and pick one that contains erythritol as the sweetening agent.