Sugar-free foods are a way to enjoy sweet flavors without all the calories. If you rely on sugar-free foods often, however, you may suffer side effects. Sugar-free gum and candy as well as items labeled as dietetic may be of particular concern. Specific additives in these foods can cause digestive distress, especially in sensitive people.
Sorbitol and Mannitol
Two additives commonly used as a sweetener in sugar-free gums, syrups, cake mixes and candies called sorbitol and mannitol produce a laxative effect in some people. Although sorbitol is naturally found in fruits, such as apples and peaches, it is more likely to cause a problem when used as a sweet sugar alcohol added to foods. Mannitol is another artificial sweetener derived from sugar alcohols used often in candy and gum. These additives have fewer calories than sugar and they pass through your system partially digested so you absorb even fewer calories.
Because sorbitol and mannitol are absorbed slowly, they linger in the gut. This causes gas and bloating in some people. In sensitive people, diarrhea, vomiting and nausea can occur with excessive consumption.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest reports that symptoms can occur from ingestion of between 10 g and 50 g of sorbitol daily. Because they weigh less, children may experience gastrointestinal symptoms with even lower amounts. The Food and Drug Administration requires manufacturers to warn that sorbitol may cause a laxative effect only if a product will result in the consumption of 50 g or more per day.
Weaning yourself off sugar-free candies, gum and other products can help you determine if your digestive distress is due to artificial sweeteners. If you can eliminate all sugar-free products for a week, and your stomach problems go away, you may be able to establish a correlation. Try substituting naturally sweet foods, such as fruit, to satisfy your sweet cravings.