Content warning: TMI/oversharing
In this post I will first discuss at length my weird problems with digesting sugars, and then at the end come to the main point of this post, which is to review two excellent sugar-free foods that I’m really grateful to my wife Nataliya for tracking down – as you may imagine, trying to live without any food that contains any amount of sugar is both difficult and unpleasant, so these foods that Nataliya discovered are a real breath of fresh air. If you just want to read the review, click here.
Sugar and FODMAPs intolerances
Irritable bowel syndrome is a relatively common but still poorly-understood condition, and there is evidence that in at least some cases, IBS may be triggered by a food intolerance – specifically, FODMAPs intolerance.
I seem to have FODMAPs intolerance, which includes (in my case) intolerances to multiple sugars, including lactose. Symptoms can include, after eating food containing FODMAPs: a feeling of abdominal bloating, abdominal cramps, flatulence, and diarrhea. Knock-on effects can include: needing to go the toilet much more than usual, grumpiness and irritability, social disconnectedness, needing to walk slowly, and if the symptoms are particularly severe or long-lasting, they can lead to anal soreness and bleeding. (Sorry, a bit TMI, I know.)
The severity and time of onset of symptoms after consumption may be related to how much FODMAPs are contained in the food and/or drink. This is particularly evident with sugars for me.
Obviously, this is a condition which can have a serious impact on someone’s life, and especially so when you do not know what is happening to you or why and you just assume that it is something genetic that you have to just “put up with”, as I assumed when I experienced these problems when I was younger.
Weird facts that don’t necessarily jibe with this theory
Although I’m pretty convinced that I have some kind of sugar intolerance, and maybe also FODMAPs intolerance, due to the abundance of evidence from my personal experience of trying out different foods and drinks to attempt to eliminate problems, there are a couple of weird facts that don’t necessarily fit in with this theory – although it is possible that they are explicable somehow:
- I don’t usually seem to have any problems from drinking Fanta Zero – which, despite the name, does actually contain some sugar. However, it’s not added sugar, it’s just sugar that’s naturally present in the fruit and vegetable juices that are added.1Ingredients of products created by multinationals like Coca-Cola may vary on a country-by-country basis, so always check the ingredients if you have food intolerances, let alone allergies. In particular, it looks like the US version of Fanta Zero contains a derivative of coconut, which affects me pretty badly, whereas the UK version doesn’t.
- What’s even weirder is, as a child I used to drink Ribena (the original version) almost exclusively, and Ribena, at least nowadays, contains added sugar, not to mention the sugar naturally present in the blackcurrant juice. So either it didn’t used to contain added sugar (but I’m pretty sure it did), or I’ve somehow developed an intolerance to sugar. Or – weirdest possibility of all – something I was eating or drinking somehow “switched off” – or failed to “activate” – a latent sugar intolerance. Although I used to have abdominal cramps fairly regularly as a child, I didn’t have them constantly, which is what I would have expected in hindsight, given that I was drinking Ribena exclusively.
There are other small anomalies with the theory like this, as my wife has pointed out to me. Some of them could be related to the low amounts of sugar present in the foods, although it doesn’t seem to be a simple gram-for-gram thing – sometimes foods with as little as a few grams of sugar in can affect me.
I also only seem to have developed lactose intolerance at the age of 10 or 11 or thereabouts – I remember swearing off milk and cream cheese – the latter of which I had previously enjoyed. However, this change is completely normal and doesn’t count against my theory, as lactose intolerance affects the majority of the world’s population, and for those who have some genetic tolerance to lactose, it is often lost in childhood or adulthood.
How to check if you have sugar intolerance (unofficial)
There is as yet no scientifically-validated test for FODMAPs intolerance, though an experimental one is currently being evaluated. There is a test for sucrose intolerance which doctors can perform. However, there is a simpler common-sense test for sucrose intolerance which I’m going to describe here.
After avoiding any other foods and drinks which you think might irritate your bowel (e.g. foods containing FODMAPs) for the rest of the day, in the evening, either eat a teaspoon of sugar or drink an ordinary Coke (not a diet Coke, obviously). If you experience symptoms like the ones I described above, you probably do have sucrose intolerance at least.
I say in the evening for two reasons:
- Many people have a regular bowel movement in the morning, so this is to prevent hypochondriacs getting misled by their regular bowel movement
- To try to avoid effects from food and drink consumed the previous day.
Similarly, to check if you have lactose intolerance, just try drinking a glass of milk and see if you get symptoms. Well, maybe not a glass, that might be overdoing it. Personally, I’d be too afraid to drink a whole glass of milk, with or without lactose intolerance pills (which I don’t find to be completely effective).
Speaking of lactose intolerance pills, they just contain lactase, which is the enzyme needed to digest lactose in your stomach. Lactose-intolerant people don’t produce enough lactase. Sucrose intolerance “medication” also exists, but unfortunately in Europe (but not in America) it is considered an experimental treatment, and thus only available to people with a formal diagnosis on a named patient basis – which in the UK context, seems to mean patients whose doctors are willing to allow the patient try out an experimental treatment for it. I’m not a medical professional, but it seems to me at first blush that it would be unlikely that a doctor in the UK would object to this, at least after they had confirmed the patient’s self-diagnosis – the active ingredient of the “medication” is just a digestive enzyme, surely!
Thus far I haven’t yet been formally diagnosed as sucrose intolerant, so I haven’t yet been able to access such a treatment, but it seems like I should try to get diagnosed as it could render a lot of this palaver completely irrelevant. On the other hand, too much sugar is bad for you, so maybe the fact that I need to avoid consuming it is a blessing in disguise which I should embrace – particularly as I am obese? What do you think? Leave a comment below.2And no, I am not going to get a H1B visa and move to America just so I can get this treatment more easily! That would be silly.
The “gluten trigger” theory
The problem with the test I described above is, if (as some people believe they have) you have another condition that causes temporary sugar intolerance only after consuming a certain trigger ingredient – perhaps gluten – the test won’t necessarily pick that up.
I have some (what is to me, amazing and awesome) experience of having no problems eating sugary food after having a gluten-free breakfast, but on the other hand, on other days I have eaten supposedly totally gluten-free food, and still gotten a horrible digestive reaction from some kind of FODMAP (I assume) that was in my food or my beer.
I really don’t know what to think, and I’d really like to solve this mystery! Possibly the food I ate on those bad days was illegally described as gluten-free when in fact it wasn’t completely gluten-free, or possibly it was accidentally cross-contaminated with gluten while being prepared. Or maybe it has nothing whatsoever to do with gluten and on the good days I just happened to hit upon a type of cake that day that somehow doesn’t cause me problems, even though it contains sugar – though that seems incredibly unlikely.
The food review
Now, finally to the main purpose of writing this post – the food reviews! (Probably very boring to anyone who does not have sugar intolerance, so if you don’t, you can stop reading now.)
The snacks – Clearspring organic rice cakes
- officially certified as vegan (and are therefore vegetarian – everything that is vegan is also vegetarian)
- labelled as gluten-free. Given that it is illegal to market food as gluten-free in the UK if it contains more than 20 parts per million of gluten, I think we can pretty much just trust the label on this one.
These rice cakes are delicious, the best rice cakes I’ve ever tasted (admittedly that’s a pretty low bar, but still) and I was amazed that they (a) contained sesame seeds and yet still tasted nice (I don’t normally like sesame seeds), and (b) had no added sugar except the sugar found in mirin, which is a Japanese product that is made by fermenting rice. The sugar found in mirin is a complex carbohydrate, not a refined sugar, according to Wikipedia.
So, the rice cakes are not strictly speaking sugar-free, but are at least sucrose-free, and I experienced no ill-effects after eating them. It turns out that the mirin ingredient is also found in miso soup, which I’ve also had many times without problems.
Yesterday I also ate a couple of these, and had no ill effects either:
The desserts – “Simply delish zero strawberry jelly“
Yes, that’s actually what they’re called. These are:
- supplied as sachets to be made up into jelly, so they are compact
- gelatine-free, and hence vegetarian (gelatine is rarely a health issue as far as I know, the main reason this matter is it’s just not vegetarian),
- really sugar-free – check the nutrition information – 0g of sugar!
- preservative-free, if you care about such things, and…
- stuffed full of lots of artificial sweeteners and flavourings. So if you’re one of those people that has an issue with such things, you probably don’t want to buy this. But if you are reading this post and are sugar-intolerant, I would really advise you to pick your battles. Our problems with sugar are very real – any speculated problems with artificial sweetners are as far as I know unproven at this point, and if any serious proven dangers arose, then surely they would be banned by regulators. Unless you believe that there’s a vast conspiracy between Monsanto and the regulators all around the world, but really… that’s kind of out there. For over a decade there have been websites insinuating that there was some kind of conspiracy involved in the approval of aspartame in particular, but if you look at them, they don’t seem to be very credible websites, generally speaking, and some of them have a clear conflict of interest (much like the gold sellers and gold marketers dissing fiat currency). There are legitimate reasons to criticise Monsanto, but I don’t think producing aspartame is one of them. For me, it and other artificial sweetners like it are a boon – and as a FODMAP-intolerant person, “natural” sweetners like sorbitol are just as bad as ordinary sugar for me.
So yeah, it’s jelly. It’s jelly that I can actually eat, which to me is awesome. It tastes like jelly, it looks like jelly, it feels like jelly, it pretty much just is normal jelly, without the sugar. At last!
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Ingredients of products created by multinationals like Coca-Cola may vary on a country-by-country basis, so always check the ingredients if you have food intolerances, let alone allergies. In particular, it looks like the US version of Fanta Zero contains a derivative of coconut, which affects me pretty badly, whereas the UK version doesn’t.|
|2.||↑||And no, I am not going to get a H1B visa and move to America just so I can get this treatment more easily! That would be silly.|