The Guide to FODMAP Friendly Sugars and Sweeteners

The Guide to FODMAP Friendly Sugars and Sweeteners

Updated on 18.03.17

This list of safe sugars and sweeteners is suitable for those following the low FODMAP/fructose friendly diet for fructose malabsorption, which is also known as dietary fructose intolerance. If you have hereditary fructose intolerance (HFI), please do not use this list, as it is not strict enough for your fructose free requirements. If you have an infant/young child that is failing to thrive, has an aversion to sweet foods or continuously reacts poorly to sucrose/fructose/sorbitol containing foods, please ask your doctor about getting them checked for HFI.

There is a lot of confusion regarding the terms "sugar" and "sweetener" with regards to the low FODMAP diet. Either due to miscommunication with their dietitian - or not seeing a dietitian at all - fodmappers can unnecessarily over-restrict themselves. Given that the full low FODMAP diet is restrictive enough as it is, and perhaps taking into account other allergies or intolerances, I'm assuming that most of us would like to keep our diets as open as possible.

To begin with, let's clarify something; this is what a low FODMAP diet is not:

  • FODMAP free - there's no such thing, unless you're eating an unseasoned cut of meat or pure oil. Every plant food has FODMAPs in them, it's the amount that makes the difference. I don't want to say, "it's the dose that makes the poison," as FODMAPs are not poison.
  • Sugar free - FODMAPs include a range of sugars (saccharides) and other carbohydrates. Some sugars, such as fructose and lactose, are FODMAPs while others, such as glucose and maltose, are not.
  • Fructose free - unless you have hereditary fructose intolerance, fructose does not need to be completely eliminated from your diet, just reduced. Given their similar structures, as long as glucose is consumed in equal or greater amounts than fructose, the co-transport system will help with fructose absorption in the small intestine (up to a point, it can be overwhelmed).
  • Low carbohydrate - FODMAPs are a group of carbohydrates that are readily fermentable. Many carbohydrates, however, are not, so are safe. Starch, for example, is an example of a non-FODMAP complex carbohydrate. A low carb diet is not necessarily a low FODMAP diet.
  • Organic/non-GMO - whether a food is grown using organic, non-GMO, non-organic or GMO farming products or methods holds no bearing over its FODMAP content.
  • A forever diet - the low FODMAP diet is designed to allow you, with professional guidance, to work out your individual IBS triggers (including amounts/thresholds). There is no point in completely eliminating all potentially high FODMAP foods when, you only malabsorb one or two of the individual FODMAPs. The food trial phase is an important part of the diet that should not be avoided, unless your health practitioner has advised you otherwise.

So rest easy, guys - if you are following only the low FODMAP diet, then you can still consume moderate amounts of your favourite sweet or starchy foods, as long as they are not otherwise high FODMAP.

Now that we have that sorted, let's discuss a variety of commonly used sugars and sweeteners and their FODMAP content. This is a long article but hopefully it will be a great resource for confused FODMAPpers out there!

Sugars/Saccharides

  • "Saccharide" is the scientific term for the word "sugar." There are different types, including monosaccharides (single sugar molecules), disaccharides (double sugar molecules) and polysaccharides (multiple sugar molecules joint together).
  • Sugars form part of the carbohydrate macro-nutrient group, along with fibres and starches.
  • Not all sugars are considered FODMAPs.
  • Aside from potentially causing IBS flare ups, all sugar consumption should be limited for general health reasons.
  • If even modest servings of "safe" sugars continue to cause your fructose malabsorption/IBS to react, please consider getting tested for SIBO.
  • If you are diabetic, please consult your doctor or dietitian before using any concentrated glucose syrup

Agave Syrup/Nectar

FODMAP rating: unsafe.

Made from either the leaf or the root of several species of the agave plant, including Agave tequilana and Agave salmiana, agave syrup has become a popular "healthy" sugar choice over the last few years. It is approximately 90% fructose, thus some people claim that it doesn't spike blood glucose and is a better choice for diabetics and those wishing to lose weight. This research, however, is only suggestive and is countered by studies that suggest the opposite - that too much fructose, while it won't spike blood glucose, is still not good for you metabolically. The American Diabetes Association recommends that agave consumption should be limited, just like all the other sugars in the list.

Whichever side of this you choose to believe, the facts stand that agave syrup is just about the worst sugar a fructose malabsorber could choose, given it's extremely high ratio of excess fructose.

Beet Sugar

FODMAP rating: safe.

Beets are one of the two most common sources of common table sugar production, the other being cane sugar (listed below). Beet sugar contains 99.95% sucrose, which is a disaccharide comprising one molecule each of glucose and fructose. Given that the fructose ratio is 1.0, beet sugar (and any other sucrose-based sugar) can be consumed in moderate amounts, relying on the glucose co-transport method of fructose absorption.

Brown Sugar

FODMAP rating: safe in 1 tbsp. servings.

Brown sugar is common table sugar (sucrose) that has either had a little molasses left in during the refinement process, or alternatively, some molasses was added back in later on. Monash University lists the safe serving of brown sugar at 1 tbsp.

Molasses (listed below) is generally considered unsafe as there is a fructose ratio greater than 1.0 however, the ratio is small at approx 1.075 (according to Nutrition Data) and not a lot of molasses is added into the brown sugar. For this reason, a little bit of brown sugar in a baked good every now and then should be tolerated by most. More molasses is added into dark brown sugar than the light brown sugar, so I'd stick to the latter.

As with everything to do with FODMAPs, if you are extra sensitive and find that you react to brown sugar, just leave it out. Alternatively, use a combination of brown sugar and dextrose and the dextrose (glucose) will bring the fructose ratio back to well under 1.0, while allowing you to take advantage of the rich, caramel-like flavours that brown sugar can bring to your food.

Cane Sugar/Syrup

FODMAP rating: safe.

Cane sugar is made from sucrose, which has a fructose ratio of 1.0 and is considered safe in terms of FODMAPs.

Monash University suggests that the amount found in a glass of diluted cordial mix, or a small handful of lollies, should be well tolerated by most but that those who are more sensitive should limit large doses. Given that lollies are mostly sucrose, the amount of sucrose found in a slice of otherwise low FODMAP cake should be within those limits.

Coconut Sugar

FODMAP rating: safe but watch your serving size.

Coconut sugar, which is produced by dehydrating the sap of coconut palms, is rated by FODMAP Friendly as safe in 1 tsp. (4.0 g) serves.

Monash rates a similar product, coconut treacle, as safe in 1/2 tbsp. (14 g) serves, more becoming higher in FOS.

This information matches with my previous research that stated that coconut sugar contains inulin, which is a type of fructan (FOS) that is mildly sweet and can reduce the rate of glucose absorption in the gut, which is one of the reasons why coconut sugar is touted as a healthier, lower GI option.

Given the above and, knowing that FODMAP reactions are dosage dependent, I'd make sure that you do not over-consume coconut sugar during your elimination phase, though please discuss this with your dietitian/nutritionist.

Corn Syrup

FODMAP rating: safe.

Corn syrup is made by extracting glucose from corn starch, using a multi-step enzymatic approach. It is anywhere from 93-96% glucose (as maltose, a disaccharide of two glucose molecules), so is one of the safest sweeteners available, in terms of FODMAPs. For more information on FODMAPs, corn syrup and other corn products, read this article.

Please note that high fructose corn syrup is different to corn syrup and has been listed separately below.

Fructose (isolate)

FODMAP rating: unsafe.

Isolated fructose is anywhere from 90-100% fructose and, as such, is unsuitable for consumption by symptomatic fructose malabsorbers.

Fruit Sugar

FODMAP rating: unsafe.

Refers almost only to fructose; avoid it like the plague if you are a symptomatic fructose malabsorber.

Glucose Syrup

FODMAP rating: safe.

Depending on the country you live in, glucose syrup can be produced from corn, wheat, rice, potatoes or tapioca. In the USA, corn syrup is used synonymously with glucose syrup and, in Australia, it's typically produced from wheat glucose. The starch from the base ingredient is isolated and, via a multistep enzymatic process, is converted to a concentrated glucose solution.

Given that glucose is the safest form of sugar for fructose malabsorbers to consume, glucose syrup is a good choice of sugar to use during the elimination phase of the low FODMAP diet. It is less sweet than sucrose, due to the absence of fructose, and you will find that the flavour lacks a little volume but this can be corrected by using either a combination of glucose syrup and a sucrose-based sugar or adding low FODMAP spices to your food.

If you have coeliac disease, please confirm with the product manufacturers that the glucose syrup produced from wheat (or any other gluten containing grain) is considered gluten free. 

Golden Syrup

FODMAP rating: safe at 1/2 tbsp, unsafe at 1 tbsp.

Golden syrup, also known as light treacle, is a sucrose-based inverted syrup produced during the process of refining the juice of either sugar cane or sugar beets into common table sugar. It has been rated as low FODMAP in serves of 1/2 tbsp. (7 g) and high in FOS in larger amounts, so make sure that you monitor serving size if using it in baked goods or drizzling it on your porridge or toast.

In terms of cooking and baking, it is a great substitute for honey and molasses, which should be restricted due to excess fructose levels, and also for maple syrup, which can be outrageously expensive in certain places, like all of Australia. It lends a rich, distinctive flavour to dishes that is milder than molasses, which can be quite bitter.

High Fructose Corn Syrup

FODMAP rating: unsafe.

Once corn syrup (which is mostly maltose/glucose) has been produced, the reaction is taken a step further and the corn syrup is processed with the enzyme glucose isomerase, to convert some of the glucose into fructose. This produces HFCS-42. Liquid chromatography is used to further convert glucose into fructose, to create HFCS-90, which can be blended with HFCS-42 to create HFCS-55.

Regardless of your opinion of the health dangers of HFCS, it is NOT low FODMAP. As the varieties (42%, 55% and 90% fructose) are not labelled differently, it’s best to stay clear of it completely.

Other names include: isoglucose, glucose-fructose syrup, fructose-glucose syrup, isolated fructose and fructose syrup (the latter two refer to HFCS-90).

Honey

FODMAP rating: unsafe.

Honey is produced from the nectar that honey bees collect from flowers. For this reason, it is not vegan. Different varieties of honey contain vastly different fructose ratios, with a rare few possibly being as low as 1.0, which would be considered safe in terms of FODMAP consumption. However, unless honey is specifically labelled as FODMAP friendly, it would be safer to assume that is has a high fructose ratio and should therefore be avoided until such a time that you and your dietitian decide it should be tested.

Monash University lists 1 tbsp. of honey as high in excess fructose and thus unsafe for those with fructose malabsorption.

Invert Sugar

FODMAP rating: tentatively safe but potentially problematic for some.

Invert sugar is a tricky beast. The term refers to sugars that have been converted to syrups using heat and an acid-based chemical reaction. You can mimic this by creating golden syrup at home by melting table sugar with a slice of lemon (the acid). Honey is another invert syrup, though obviously bees don't have stoves and lemon slices on hand to create it.

The problem is that when "invert syrup" or "invert sugar" is listed, it is impossible to tell which invert syrup is being referred to and thus it has an unknown fructose ratio. Many people in the fructose malabsorption groups online state that invert syrup is a trigger for them. As invert syrup hasn't officially been tested yet, I can't say for sure but Patsy Catsos, a well-known dietitian and a FODMAP expert, says that invert syrup is "tentatively okay." I understand this to be that if the fructose ratio is safe, the invert syrup would be safe. If you are unsure and don't want to risk a reaction, simply avoid it.

Maple Sugar/Syrup

FODMAP rating: safe.

Maple syrup is produced by boiling and dehydrating the sap from sugar maple trees, until a viscous, delicious syrup has formed. Luckily for fructose malabsorbers, it is a sucrose-based syrup, with a fructose ratio of 1.0, so is safe in moderation on the low FODMAP diet.

It lends a rich, distinctive flavour to foods that only gets better when you buy grade B, rather than grade A maple syrup. Please ensure that you are buying pure maple syrup and not a "table syrup" or "pancake syrup," which could contain higher FODMAP ingredients.

Molasses

FODMAP rating: unsafe.

While Monash University has not tested molasses just yet, other reliable sources suggest that it has a fructose ratio slightly greater than 1.0 (1.073 to be exact), so it seems to be unsafe for those with fructose malabsorption. However, we will have to wait for Monash University's independent lab tests and food trials to be sure.

Raw Sugar (Turbinado/Rapidura/Demerara)

FODMAP rating: safe.

Raw sugar is a partially refined version of crystallised table sugar. Each variety has varying degrees of molasses left in from a shortened refinement process. Typically found in coarser grains, they provide similar caramel notes to brown sugar. Also like brown sugar, they are safe in moderation. I would stick to the 1 tbsp. serving size of brown sugar, or combine the raw sugar with glucose or dextrose powder to achieve the rich flavour with a more favourable fructose ratio.

Rice Malt/Brown Rice Syrup

FODMAP rating: safe.

Rice malt syrup is glucose/maltose syrup that has been produced from (typically brown) rice. In the modern/industrial method of rice malt syrup production, the brown rice is fermented in the presence of enzymes, to separate the starch from the other components, after which it is strained and heated to achieve the concentrated glucose/maltose syrup that we can buy in most health food stores or online. In the traditional method, barley sprouts are used in the first step, so please make sure you complete further research on traditionally made rice syrups and gluten content if you have coeliac disease.

As rice malt syrup contains approximately 3% glucose and 45% maltose (a disaccharide of two glucose molecules), it is considered safe to use by those with fructose malabsorption and is lower GI than sucrose and pure glucose. If you are diabetic, please use caution and consult your doctor or dietitian before using any alternative syrup for the first time.

Sucrose

FODMAP rating: safe.

Sucrose is the scientific name for any disaccharide (double sugar molecule) that contains a molecule of fructose and a molecule of glucose (see image above). As fructose and glucose are present in equal amounts, the fructose ratio is 1.0, so sucrose is considered safe for fructose malabsorbers to consume in moderation, because the glucose co-transport method of fructose absorption will take care of the fructose present, up to a point. Be careful, as this method can be overwhelmed, so symptoms would resume if you over-consume sucrose-based products.

Table/Castor/White/Icing/Baker’s (etc) Sugar

FODMAP rating: safe.

Common table/white sugar is the product of completely refining sugar cane of sugar beet juice. They resulting product is entirely sucrose, so the fructose ration is 1.0 and they are considered safe for FODMAPpers to consume in moderation, according to Monash University.

The varying names refer to the different grain sizes and uses that the refined sugar product has been ground into. For example, White/table sugar is coarse (though not as coarse as most raw sugars), followed by baker's sugar, castor sugar and then finally icing/powdered sugar. Icing/powdered sugar can often be found cut with corn starch to prevent clumping - this is not a FODMAP issue but it is something to keep in mind if you have additional intolerances to corn.

Sweeteners

This section covers both artificial and naturally occurring sweeteners, which are commonly used instead of different sugars to provide sweetness in foods without the calories. No comment or judgement is being made about an individual's choice to use artificial/zero calorie sweeteners, as we must fuel our bodies as we see fit.

Aspartame

FODMAP rating: safe.

Aspartame is a methyl ester of two amino acids: aspartic acid and phenylalanine, to which form it is returned during digestion in the human body. Also known as NutraSweet and Equal, and coded as E951 in Europe, aspartame is a zero calorie, non-saccharide sweetener that is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar.

It was approved for use by the FDA in 1981 and since then has been the source of many health debates - I won't go into them here, as it is not within the scope of a low FODMAP/gluten free blog and I am not a food scientist. Regardless of your opinion on whether aspartame is carcinogenic or suitable to consume, it is low in FODMAPs, so is safe to use on the low FODMAP diet. 

Phenylketonurics should avoid aspartame.

Polyols

FODMAP rating: unsafe.

Polyols refers to the P in FODMAPs, consisting of sugar alcohols that are commonly used as "sugar free" low calorie sweeteners. They can be naturally occurring or man-made, and include (but are not limited to) erythritolisomaltmaltitolmannitolsorbitol and xylitol. It is well-known that polyols can have a laxative effect (you've all seen the warnings about the side effects of over consumption on the back of sugar-free gum), so it shouldn't surprise you to learn that polyols can be malabsorbed in the human small intestine, just like fructose and lactose.

The size of the sugar alcohol will determine the extent to which it is likely to be absorbed in most people; erythritol, a four carbon polyol, is generally well absorbed, where as those that are six carbon or greater in size are unable to be absorbed via simple diffusion. In addition to being malabsorbed themselves, polyols, when consumed in combination with fructose, will bind to and block GLUT-5 fructose channels, thus increasing fructose malabsorption and worsening symptoms. For this reason, you should watch your intake of polyols, regardless of whether you malabsorb them specifically, as well as your fructose load.

Saccharin

FODMAP rating: safe.

Also known as Sweet 'n Low, and coming in at approximately 300-400 times sweeter than regular sugar, saccharin is considered to be low FODMAP. It is unstable when heated but doesn't interact chemically with other ingredients, so is otherwise shelf stable. A couple of studies suggest that the sweet taste can trigger an insulin response under fasting conditions, even though there is no glucose present.

Stevia

FODMAP rating: safe.

Derived from the leaves of the plant Stevia rebaudiana, pure stevia, whether produced from the whole leaf or extracted, is around 100-300 times sweeter than table sugar. The active ingredients in stevia leaf extract are steviol glycosides, which are heat stable and are not fermentable, making them FODMAP friendly

The two main components that provide sweetness are stevioside and rebaudioside. Rebaudioside A has the least bitterness of the two, and is preferentially extracted in commercially produced Stevia products, such as those listed above. The whole leaf version of stevia can impart a slightly more bitter flavour to drinks and bakes goods, etc but some people prefer it, as they can grow the plant easily and then dry and grind the leaves themselves.

Due to the strange flavour of pure stevia, many products contain a blend of the extract and another sweetener, which is usually a polyol (erythritol is common). Please make sure you always check the ingredients of the stevia  liquid or powder that you purchase, to make sure it only contains low FODMAP ingredients. As of the most recent edit, Pure Via is the only product I am aware of that contains only stevia and a FODMAP friendly sugar (dextrose).

Sucralose

FODMAP rating: safe in terms of FODMAPs but potentially problematic in terms of influence on gut bacteria.

Also known as Splenda, sucralose is low in FODMAPsOne study, however, suggests that extended sucralose use might reduce colonies of beneficial gut bacteria, as well as increasing foecal pH and reducing the bioavailability of certain orally administered drugs. This is not something that someone who is already prone to functional gut disorders would want to play with, so please discuss the use of sucralose with your health practitioner, to determine the right course of action for you.

Disclaimer: Although I come from a health science background, I am not a dietitian or a medical doctor; I have just researched this topic myself. If your health professional has advised you to avoid certain or all sugar-based products or sweeteners, please do so, as it might not be for a FODMAP-related reason.

Title photo credit goes to: Unsplash.