Discover what you’re drinking in your protein or diet shake. Check its ingredients with this honest fact finder. Some of the bestselling supplement shakes contain undesirable additives, does yours?
We’ve looked at some top selling protein shakes available in the UK and checked the ingredients list. From that, we’ve compiled this big list of added extras you might find in your favourite shake. Each is described concisely, so you know what you’re drinking.
Warning: Google some shake ingredients and you will find claims about how it may harm your health. Most of these claims are not fully scientifically proven. Some are even disproved. Republishing scare stories would be a cheap shot. We don’t need bad science to prove the benefits of choosing our all-natural shake alternatives. We’ll stick to the known facts.
All the ingredients in any protein or diet shake currently sold in the UK or EU must have current approval by the relevant food standards authority. In the UK, that means approval by the European Food Safety Authority and the UK Food Standards Agency (here’s what they say on food additives). Likewise, products sold in the USA, must have US Food and Drug Administration approval. While such approval is upheld, ingredients must be considered safe.
Proven harmful or not, you still get to decide whether you consume any specific ingredient in your diet. Some ingredients might not be helping you achieve your goals. Wouldn’t you want to know which? Indeed, you may choose to avoid whole categories of ingredients – like artificial additives. We developed our high protein soup range because of the artificial additives in many shakes. To make an informed choice, the first step is to know what the ingredients are, what they do and why they are in your shake. That’s the purpose of this list we’re compiling.
Check your protein shake
Some of the ingredients detailed below may be in your go-to shake. They are not uncommon. Before you slurp that shake after your next workout, why not check the ingredients against this list? Discover what you’re drinking – besides protein and BCAAs! Find out what role those ingredients may play in your overall health or nutrition intake. Information is power, so get informed!
Contents – Ingredients Links
Click the link to jump to the relevant information about that ingredient.
- Artificial Sweeteners
- Natural Sweeteners
- Sugar Alcohols / Polyols
- Stabilisers, Thickeners, Preservatives
Many of the added extras in protein shakes are necessary for flavouring. Most are flavours model sweet treats – like milk shakes, cookies, ice cream and desserts. This leaves only two real options: add sugars or sweeteners. Sugars are used where calorie count (or kJ energy value) isn’t a key buying decision factor. Where increased calories are sought – e.g. in bulking up formulas – sugars may be preferred. Sugars may be natural whole sugar – like we’d use in our home – or processed sugars. Here’s some you will find in protein shakes:
- Sugar = sucrose = the spoonfuls we use at home
- Most added sucrose extracted from sugar beet
- Contains 50% glucose and 50% fructose
- Glucose causes blood sugar spikes
- Multiple health concerns about excess fructose consumption
Good old fashioned table sugar is often listed by its scientific name: sucrose. It is actually a compound composed of two sugars (monosaccharides): glucose and fructose. Sucrose is a natural product produced in plants. About 50% of the sugar we consume in the UK is extracted from sugar beet, often grown nationally. The vast majority of sugar in baked goods, drinks and cereals comes from this source. Typically, if it doesn’t say “cane sugar” on the pack, then it is most likely beet sugar. Read where our sucrose comes from here in the UK for more information.
The glucose molecule of sucrose is, effectively, blood sugar. It’s the same molecule that type 1 diabetics monitor the quantity of in their blood. It is ready to use fuel for our cells (more about the role of glucose in the body) . Excess glucose is first converted to glycogen and stored in the liver and muscles. If still more glucose exists, it will be converted to fat for long-term storage of energy. This may not be a desirable outcome for you, which is why we don’t add sugar to our protein products.
Fructose is the other half (the other molecule) of the sucrose disaccharide and it is not ready to fuel your body. You cannot use fructose until your liver converts it into glucose. As such, your liver does the heavy lifting.
Prior to the refinement of sucrose and its widespread use as an ingredient, mankind’s diet contained little fructose. We received a small amount from seasonal fruits and comparatively less from vegetables. Nowadays there is increasing concern amongst scientists that excessive fructose intake plays a role in the development of chronic diseases and metabolic disorders in humans. In the USA especially, high fructose corn syrup is a primary “smoking gun” in the search for the cause of the obesity epidemic.
- Increased cholesterol, fat accumulation around the organs and potentially heart disease
- Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
- Type II diabetes
- Leptin resistance, leading to obesity.
It seems added sucrose can only detract from the healthiness of any product. On this basis, sucrose (and its fructose component especially) is one ingredient we should be monitoring cautiously in our diets. This is especially true if you are on a “high protein” diet, eg for muscle gain or carbohydrate reduction reasons. There is some scientific evidence that eating extra protein long term places additional strain on the liver. It would be wise, therefore, to look after your liver by reducing other risk factors. This would include avoiding excess alcohol and fructose consumption.
- Chemically identical to glucose
- Same energy value as sucrose
- Less sweet than sugar so more required
- Complete absorption more rapid
- More severe increase in blood sugar levels
Dextrose Monohydrate is a form of pure crystallised dextrose, which is chemically identical to glucose, or blood sugar. Processed from corn starch, the term “Monohydrate” refers to its state. A monohydrate is a single molecule/ cell/ unit containing a single molecule of water present in crystallised form. It is produced by enzymatic (enzyme action) hydrolysis (chemical breakdown in water) of starch, followed by purification, concentration, crystallisation and drying.
Dextrose Monohydrate’s main use is to sweeten confectionery, bakery, snacks, beverages and dairy products. At 4 calories/gram, it is identical to sucrose in energy value. However, it is less sweet, requiring more ingredient generally. Also, the body processes it differently. As a simple sugar, dextrose is just one molecule (instead of the glucose-fructose pair in sucrose). This means, it is as readily absorbed as the glucose half of sucrose. The absence of fructose, which must first be metabolised in the liver, means complete absorption is more rapid. This causes more dramatic increase in blood sugar levels with dextrose compared with consumption of the same quantity of sucrose. Find out more about dextrose versus sucrose here.
Sweeteners are either artificial – manufactured in chemical processes – or natural extracts, harvested from plants like Stevia. They add sweetness to protein shakes without driving up calories. Common man-made sweeteners – like aspartame, sucralose or acesulfame K – range from 150 to 600 times sweeter than table sugar. The extreme sweetness of some renders them effectively calorie free, because such small quantities are required. None is entirely convincing in mimicking the flavour of sucrose; most people notice a distinct taint or aftertaste from each. As a result, artificial sweeteners are often combined in products, to mask each other and provide a better overall sugar flavour.
Loss of bacterial biodiversity in the gut is one risk shared by several artificial sweeteners. Research links having a healthy mix of helpful bacteria in the gut to better long term weight management. So, adding them to diet products could actually be counter-productive. That’s why we don’t use artificial sweeteners in our diet whey protein.
Common Artificial Sweeteners in Shakes
- Processed from sugar through multi-step chlorination
- Zero calories with average 600 times the sweetness of sugar
- Approved as largely indigestible, unmetabolised and fully excreted compound
- Limited science on potential metabolisation and residuals in fatty tissues
- Bacteriostatic effect may reduce bacteria helpful for heathy gut
Sucralose (E number E955) is a no-calorie artificial sweetener derived from regular table sugar by chlorination. This multi-stage chemical process renders it largely indigestible and by virtue calorie free. It still contains oxygen-hydrogen groups with the correct structure to interact with taste receptors in our tongues, so we taste sweetness. In fact, it tastes as much as 1,000 times sweeter than sugar and even 3 times sweeter than aspartame or Acesulfame K.
Until recently, all the science suggested sucralose is quickly excreted by the body, without being metabolised. That is, about 85% of ingested sucralose is not absorbed at all by the body and passed in faeces within 5 days. While the rest, though absorbed, is not processed for energy and excreted in your urine. So, either passing straight through undigested or after filtration into urine by the kidneys. But, new research has questioned the “not metabolized” position agreed for regulatory approval of sucralose.
A study by North Carolina State University in 2018, found at least two fat-soluble compounds metabolized from sucralose in the guts of rats. This study also discovered sucralose itself in fatty tissues of the body. As yet, the new science has not altered the official scientific or regulatory position of sucralose.
Another study in rats found sucralose’s bacteriostatic effects harmed the health of their gut fauna. Bacteria in the gut are known to be extremely important to our digestive health and immune function. Over 12 weeks, numbers of beneficial bacteria like bifidobacteria and lactic acid bacteria were significantly reduced. Anaerobe counts were down 47%–80%. 12 weeks after the sucralose intake was halted, the rats gut biome’s still had not fully recovered.
More science is needed on both questions, because both studies were on animal not human subjects. However, the bacteriostatic effect of sucralose is not in question. So, as loss of healthy gut bacteria is linked to weight gain and obesity, it would be precautionary to limit intake.
Acesulfame K/ Potassium (E950)
- First approved in US in 1988 by FDA. EU approved as E950
- Popular sweetener in drinks, including diet and protein shakes
- Often blended with aspartame, another controversial sweetener
- Major US consumer advocacy group disputes its safety is proven
- Can unsettle the healthy balance of bacteria (the microbiome) in the gut
Acesulfame Potassium is a calorie-free sweetener also known as Acesulfame K, Ace-K, Sunnett, Sweet One or E950 (in EU). It works by stimulating the sweet-taste receptors on the tongue, without actually being metabolised. This makes it 200 times as sweet as sugar with zero energy value and with no effect on blood sugar or insulin levels.
This sweetener is artificial produced by transformation of organic acetoacetic acid (this is one of the ketone acids detected in urine when in ketosis!) and combining it with the mineral potassium to make crystals.
A close cousin to saccharin in structure, physical and chemical properties, Ace-K has been used in foods in the US since 1988. Good water solubility and long-term stability make it a popular sweetener in drinks: fizzy drinks, protein shakes, diet shakes and drink mixes. Often it will be blended with sucralose or aspartame (which loses its sweetness quickly). This masks its slightly bitter after-taste and extends the shelf-life of products featuring aspartame.
Ace-K’s availability in our diets became more widespread after 1998. That year the FDA broadened US approval of acesulfame K to include non-alcoholic beverages. This extension was not without controversy.
Since 1996, the US science-based consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has disputed that Ace-K is proven safe. They urged the FDA to do more testing before the soft drinks approval and openly question the original approval science. Acesulfame Potassium is marked “Avoid” on their list risk analysis of “Chemical Cuisine” (food additives), along with its blend-fellows aspartame and sucralose! Several limited studies have raised various specific concerns about this sweetener (see The benefits and risks of acesulfame potassium).
On the other hand, the food industry points to more than 90 studies demonstrating the safety of Acesulfame K and enduring FDA and EFSA (EU) approvals. As a result, it can be found in over 4,000 foods and beverages in about 90 countries. It is so prevalent that it’s used as a proxy for identifying urine levels in public swimming pools!
In the EU, the official acceptable daily intake is 9 mg/kg/day of body weight. So, a 10 stone (63.5kg / 140lb) person could theoretically consume 571.5mg of Ace-K every day for life without harm. At 200 times the sweetness, this equates to 127g of sugar. With typical concentrations of 72mg/ litre in soft drinks, that would mean drinking nearly 8 litres every day.
So, should we consume E950? Well, health scares aside, Ace-K remains in the same bad company of several artificial food additives that can unsettle the healthy balance of bacteria (the microbiome) in the gut. This is undesirable, because numerous studies have indicated an important role for the gut microbiome in body weight control and glucose regulation. On this basis alone, it is worth minimising Acesulfame K consumption.
- Artificial compound processed from natural amino acids that’s 200 times sweeter than sugar
- Appears to be digested and processed like normal food into normal dietary compounds
- Approved by FDA and EFSA but on the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s (CSPI) “Avoid” list
- Main health concerns of risk of cancers – especially in men – are not proven
- Consumed for 40 years in US but still calls for more science to settle safety debate
Aspartame is an artificial non-saccharide (non-carbohydrate) sweetener 200 times sweeter than sucrose. Its primary use is in soft drinks, but aspartame also appears in protein shakes, frozen desserts, yogurts, jams, breakfast cereals and more. Cheapness is the main reason it is used very extensively. Adjusted for relative sweetness, it trades typically at roughly 2/3rds the cost of sucralose.
Aspartame is actually made from amino acids – those magic molecules we seek from protein. But, the L-aspartic acid and L-phenylalanine in aspartame have been transformed into a compound (a methyl ester) through a complex process called transesterification. This fundamentally changes their structure – into one that simulates sugar in the stimulation of our taste buds. Interestingly, the largest scale use of transesterification is making polyesters, eg for man-made fabric!
When we eat aspartame, it rapidly reacts with water molecules and breaks down in our small intestines. The same process happens when we eat sugar, which degrades to glucose and fructose. Aspartame splits into aspartic acid, phenylalanine and methanol – so you get very small amounts of those two amino acids from aspartame. However, the quantity of amino acids from aspartame are not going to be significant in your diet or muscle gain.
The methanol produced is also insignificant compared with dietary sources like fruit juices and citrus fruits, as well as alcohol. This is absorbed and rapidly converted through the normal formaldehyde to formic acid pathway.
So far, so uncontroversial and, consequently, aspartame is approved in the US and EU. The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) and the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Food determined an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) of 40 mg/kg of body weight for aspartame; the FDA’s is higher at 50mg/kg.
But, controversy has surrounded aspartame ever since its initial FDA approval in 1974. Health concerns are founded in perceived irregularities in the aspartame approval process during the 1970s and early 1980s. Fundamentally, two major scientific organisations disagree whether the original scientific studies were robust enough to support approval. The US science-based consumer advocacy organization the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says the studies had major flaws and more science is needed. The Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (part of the FDA) says the issues were minor and don’t change the conclusions. This position has been unchanged since 1979!
EU-wide approval happened in 1994 and then The European Commission Scientific Committee on Food reaffirmed the approval in 2002 after reviewing new scientific studies. While in 2006, The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reviewed yet more studies and reaffirmed the ADI level unchanged.
So, aspartame remains both approved by the FDA and EFSA (EU), while seemingly high on the CSPI’s list of food ingredients to get banned. They give it an unequivocal “avoid” rating.
How can opinions differ so widely after 40 years of consumption and science? Here’s the gist of the disagreement:-
Between 2005 and 2010, three Italian studies in rats and mice all by the Ramazzini Foundation in Bologna raised cancer concerns. These studies were longer than usual and involved more animals. The CSPI back these, suggesting the original cancer safety studies were too short with insufficient subjects. Conversely, the food industry, FDA and EFSA (EU) contested these studies by claiming serious design flaws in the methodology. The CSPI disagrees, finding little merit in their arguments of rebuttal.
In defence of aspartame, Industry and the FDA highlight a human study by U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) researchers in 2006 that found no evidence aspartame posed a risk. In response, the CSPI claim: the study was not well-controlled; used insufficient aspartame dose, over insufficient time; monitoring did not continue for long enough.
Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health, found the first human evidence that aspartame potentially poses a slightly increased cancer risk to men, but not women. Reported in 2012, the CSPI rate this one of the “most careful” studies. However, the researchers still had to conclude that the results “do not permit the ruling out of chance as an explanation” .
Researchers in a 2010 study found that artificially sweetened drinks probably caused preterm deliveries. They suspected but never demonstrated/ proved that aspartame was responsible.
Calls for further scientific studies continue not just from the CSPI but also The California Environmental Protection Agency and others.
What can we conclude about aspartame?
Although it is artificial, aspartame is closely related to ordinary food:-
- It comprises ordinary dietary components;
- arranged in a novel compound;
- that is processed by normal digestive functions;
- along commonly used pathways;
- into residual chemicals that are commonplace in our bodies.
Officially it is safe. The FDA, EFSA and industry are all saying there’s insufficient reliable scientific evidence that it is harmful to human health. However, the CSPI among others say that three Italian studies and the Harvard study should be concern enough to cease consumption while more science is done. For consumers the question is, who and what do you believe?
Stevia / Steviol Glycoside (E960)
- Leaf/ crude stevia not approved for food in US and EU
- Must be highly purified steviol glycosides (processed extracts)
- Very, very sweet with zero calories
- Good for teeth and possibly lowering blood sugar levels
- Potential adverse reaction with diabetic and hypertension medications
- Potentially bad for gut health because stop bacteria reproducing
The peoples of Brazil and Paraguay have used stevia leaves to sweeten food for hundreds of years. They also chewed the leaves like a pseudo confectionery and they were traditional medicines, treating ailments like upset stomach. The source plant – stevia rebaudiana (Bertoni) – is a member of the Asteraceae/ Compositae family, so it’s related to daisies, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, lettuce, artichokes and many other common plants.
Once identified by western botanists in the late 19th century, stevia rebaudiana quickly went from comparatively uncommon wild plant to widely available farmed herb. Despite this, stevia’s widespread acceptance as a sugar substitute is much more recent history.
It wasn’t until 2007, that the World Health Organisation Expert Committee on Food Additives established a safe level of intake and specifications for steviol glycosides (the extracted active ingredient). Then, in 2008, the US “FDA responded without questions to a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) notice for the use of highly purified steviol glycosides obtained from stevia leaves as a general purpose sweetener in food.” (source: sciencedirect.com ) So, basically, the FDA did not dispute its safety.
Later still, in 2010 the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) Scientific Panel went through the same process, establishing an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI) for purified steviol glycosides. Despite now having relevant approvals in both major western markets, the situation with Stevia remains (as in February 2020) less than straightforward:-
Steviol glycosides were initially approved in the European Union as a dietary supplement, but not for use as a food additive. The EFSA was concerned adults and children could exceed the ADIs established in 2010, if the additive was widely used at proposed maximum levels. By 2012, the food industry had revised down the maximum levels and steviol glycosides were approved for use in most food categories with the E-number E960.
Stevia leaf has been approved only as a tincture (or part of one) in the EU since 2017, which basically means a herbal tea. But, crude stevia and unprocessed stevia leaf remain unapproved as a general food ingredient.
Crude (impure) stevia and stevia leaf are not approved by the FDA for any food use. Only the seven highly pure (95% or more) glycosides are covered by the current GRAS.
On the plus side, approved stevia extracts Rebaudioside A and stevioside are between 250 and 125 times as sweet as table sugar, but deliver zero calorific benefit. Therefore, blood sugar is unaffected and stevia could be beneficial to type 2 diabetics. Indeed small studies have shown a potential long-term positive impact in lowering blood sugar levels.
However, some science on stevia points to concerns about the (unapproved) crude extracts and raw leaf. Indications of effects on the reproductive, cardiovascular, and renal systems have been identified. Similarly, approved stevia food ingredients may contribute to low blood pressure and/or interact with high blood pressure medications. Adverse effects on insulin levels in insulin dependent diabetics or interactions with drugs for diabetes are also a concern. Stevia also interacts with lithium.
There are more general concerns with approved Steviol glycosides for the healthy wider population. Stevia (as well as artificial sweeteners saccharin, sucralose, aspartame) has demonstrated bacteriostatic effects; they stop bacteria reproducing. This raises concerns over gut microbiota composition and a decrease in beneficial fauna. Loss of healthy gut bacteria is linked to weight gain in recent scientific studies. So, if you’re aiming for “the body beautiful”, consuming these ingredients may hinder progress in the longer term. Caution would tend toward minimising their consumption.
Sugar Alcohols (polyols)
- Contain no ethanol (drinking alcohol)
- Small amounts naturally in fruit and veg. – e.g. pineapple, carrots, sweet potatoes
- Sweeten processed foods as sugar substitute
- From 6% to 75% the calorific value of regular sugar
- Generally diabetic friendly and don’t cause tooth decay
- FODMAP carbohydrates capable of causing unpleasant digestive symptoms
Sugar Alcohols are hybrids of sugar molecules and alcohol molecules. They don’t actually contain any ethanol – the compound in drinking alcohol that gets you tipsy – but some are fermented by yeasts. They exist is nature in some fruit and vegetables, like pineapple, carrots or sweet potatoes. Typically naturally occurring quantities are small. In food production, they sweeten processed foods, as a substitute for sugar. This usually is because they contain fewer calories. On the plus side, they are diabetic friendly, because your body doesn’t require much (if any) insulin to metabolise them. And, because they convert to glucose more slowly, they reduce the likelihood of blood sugar spikes. Your teeth are safer too, because unlike sugar they don’t cause tooth decay.
The effects of these Polyols (as they’re also known) are not all positive, however. Firstly, they are still carbohydrates; some contain as much as 75% of the calories of regular sugar. Secondly, there are side effects to the excessive consumption of some Sugar Alcohols. The most common being potential bloating and/ or diarrhea. While over consumption of these products can still cause unwanted weight gain.
The easy answer would seem to be to not eat too much. But, there is growing concern that the use of Sugar Alcohols is becoming very widespread. That makes it difficult for consumers to appreciate and regulate their consumption of them. Also, the range of Sugar Alcohols and different terms used to describe them, may cause confusion over what or how much we are consuming.
- The most efficient polyol sweetener
- 70% of the sweetness with 6% of the calories of sucrose
- Little or no effect on blood sugar or insulin demand
- Sugar alcohol least likely to upset stomach or bowel
Erythritol is the most efficient polyol (sugar alcohol) sweeteners, delivering 70% of the sweetness of sucrose with just 6% of the energy value. Such low calorie sweetness is approaching artificial sweetener territory, except that Erythritol is not artificial. Typically, glucose from corn starch is fermented by a yeast, producing Erythritol as a byproduct.
Besides being the lowest calorie sugar alcohol, Erythritol is also the least likely to cause stomach or bowel problems. That’s because typically 90% gets absorbed straight into the blood stream, before reaching the colon. So, the kidneys have greatest role in dealing with Erythritol. They filter it from your blood into your urine, unchanged.
Technically, Erythritol is still a FODMAP carbohydrate capable of causing digestive symptoms like gas, bloating, stomach pain, diarrhea and constipation. Although its influence is usually far lower than other sugar alcohols.
- Maltitol saves about 1/3rd the calories as a sugar substitute
- Often in shakes because adds a desirable creamy texture
- Glycemic Index (GI) of 35 means will effect blood sugar
- Rated high FODMAP – high potential to cause unwanted digestive symptoms
Maltitol delivers about 75 percent the sweetness of table sugar with just over half the calorific value per gram. So, overall, Maltitol saves about 1/3rd the calories, because more ingredient is needed to achieve the required sweetness. It often features in milk shake style protein shakes (as well as reduced calorie ice creams), because it imparts a desirable creamy texture.
In powder form, Maltitol has a glycemic index (GI) of 35, which is higher than most other sugar alcohols. Consequently, Maltitol will effect the blood sugar levels, though much less than sugar. A lower GI may be beneficial in reducing weight gain and/or the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in consumers with a sweet tooth. For comparison, ordinary table sugar has a GI of 60-65 and superior sugar alcohol Erythritol’s GI is just 1.
Like all sugar alcohols, Maltitol is a FODMAP carbohydrate. FODMAPS are short-chain carbs that resist digestion in the human gut. These carbohydrates reach the large intestine incompletely digested. Once there, bacteria ferment the remaining carbohydrate for fuel. This produces hydrogen gas (rather than the usual methane ‘wind’) and this can cause digestive discomfort in sensitive individuals. Maltitol is considered high FODMAP, so it reaches the colon poorly digested and has a high potential to cause unwanted symptoms.
Find out more about FODMAPs at this link, plus why you should consider avoiding them if you suffer irritable bowel or digestive discomfort.
Sorbitol/ Sorbitol Syrup (E420)
- More common, but less effective sugar alcohol
- Won’t lower carb calorie count versus table sugar
- High FODMAP may mean unwanted side-effects in your bowel
- Check for E420, but E432, E433, E434, E435 and E436 also contain sorbitol
Sorbitol is one of the more common but less effective sugar alcohols. Containing roughly 2/3rds the calories and sweetness of regular table sugar, its presence will increase calorie counts from carbohydrates. Unfortunately, it is more likely to cause stomach or bowel problems than sucrose or Erythritol. That’s because when Sorbitol reaches the large intestine it retains water. Water retention stimulates the wave-like muscle contractions designed to move food through the colon. This accelerates the movement of matter, which means you’ll need the loo more promptly. In addition to this “cathartic effect”, Sorbitol has laxative and diuretic effects; it makes your stools (poo) softer and bowel movements looser! Source: https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/D-Sorbitol
The unwanted side-effects of Sorbitol in your bowel make excess consumption of Sorbitol undesirable. Besides the loose and aqueous end product, the stimulated peristalsis (contractions) of the large intestine can cause cramping and irritable bowel type discomfort. According to Food Intolerance Diagnostics “Doses greater than 5g cause intestinal symptoms and diarrhea in a significant proportion of individuals.”
Sorbitol exists naturally in dried fruits especially but is also a major food additive in reduced calorie food and drink. Sometimes it hides behind the E-number E420 and you should also check for E432, E433, E434, E435 and E436, because those compounds contain Sorbitol as well.
- Eat natural xylitol in strawberries, raspberries, mushrooms and cauliflower
- As sweet as sucrose saving 1.5 calories (39%)/ gram
- Very low glycemic response makes blood sugar and insulin spikes unlikely
- Well suited to diabetic foods and tooth friendly
- A laxative and carries a FODMAP warning
Xylitol – commonly known as birch sugar and also E967 in the EU – is another sugar alcohol. It was first extracted from birch bark, although most comes from corn cobs nowadays. We eat natural xylitol in fruits and vegetables like strawberries, raspberries, mushrooms and cauliflower.
In it’s pure form, xylitol is a white, crystalline powder that looks like regular table sugar. It’s just about as sweet as sucrose too, making xylitol especially sweet among sugar alcohols. There is virtually no lingering aftertaste with xylitol. But, the flavour is more similar to dextrose, with that spicy/hot taint. Energy-wise, the EU and USA officially peg xylitol at 2.4kcal/gram, so with a similar sweetness it saves 1.5 calories (39%) per gram as a sucrose substitute.
Having been around since the 1960s, today’s main application for xylitol is in chewing gums, sugar-free confectionery and toothpaste. Being non-fermentable makes xylitol noncariogenic (tooth-friendly) and that makes it especially appropriate in dental applications.
Another positive is xylitol’s extremely low glycemic response; its GI is 12 – close to erythritol. So, blood sugar and insulin spikes are very unlikely. This makes it well suited to diabetic foods and diet versions of waffles and biscuits.
Xylitol tends toward absorbing moisture (hygroscopic) and is not a good thickening agent, compared with maltitol.
Like all sugar alcohols, xylitol is a laxative and carries a FODMAP warning. Over consumption and/or individual sensitivity can produce abdominal gas and discomfort. The recommended tolerance level ranges 50-70g/day. Dog owners should know that xylitol can be toxic to dogs. Find much more on xylitol here.
Stablisers, Emulsifiers & Thickeners
Acacia Gum (E414), Guar Gum (E412), Xanthan Gum (E415)
These gums are derived from natural sources like bushes, trees, seaweed or bacteria and are poorly tested, though probably safe. Typically, they act as thickeners and bulking agents or too impart the creamy mouthfeel lost in low fat versions of products like ice cream, yogurt and mayonnaise.
Carboxymethylcellulose (E466 + E467 & E469)
- A chemical compound produced from natural cellulose – eg from wood pulp
- Used as a thickener, stabiliser and bulking agent, especially in reduced fat products
- Indigestible and technically an insoluble source of dietary fibre
- Shown to impact gut health in animal studies
- Carries a “Caution” rating from CSPI
Carboxymethylcellulose/ E466 may also be referred to as cellulose gum or CMC in ingredients lists. Alternatively, the sodium salt of carboxymethyl cellulose may feature, listed as E467. A hydrolzed variant is known as E469. It is a common thickening agent, often used in low fat versions of products as a fat substitute. It restores viscosity and creaminess lost when fat is removed. This makes diet (esp. reduced fat) products more appealing to consumers. It is indigestible to the human gut, so it is also a filler or bulking agent. In fact, technically, it is a form of insoluble dietary fibre. By passing through undigested, it helps consumers feel more “full up” and adds substance to our stools.
Replaces fat? Calorie free? A source of dietary fibre? Thus far, you’d be excused for thinking E466 sounds like a “superfood”! But, it’s not all good news. Unlike the wholefood dietary fibre in our diets, cellulose gum is highly processed. It is synthesized by the alkali-catalyzed reaction of cellulose with chloroacetic acid. In other words, it is the product of chemical engineering, not nature. This is polar opposite to our usual dietary fibre sources: wholewheat pasta, wholegrain bread, oats, fruit, vegetables, beans and pulses. Here natural benefits are preserved, not produced through chemical modification.
Unfortunately, E466 does not seem to be as inert or innocuous as natural dietary fibre. In animal studies, Carboxymethylcellulose has been shown to induce microscopic disease features in cells lining the gut that are typical of Inflammatory Bowel Disease. It is also demonstrated to alter the gut microbiome – that diverse range of archaea, bacteria, fungi and viruses with which we have symbiotic relationship. Changes to it are linked to auto-immune and chronic inflammatory diseases and long-term weight management issues.
Carboxymethylcellulose has also been found to disrupt the intestinal epithelial barrier – the single-cell layer that acts as a selectively permeable barrier in our intestines. It should permit absorption of nutrients, electrolytes and water, but defend against all the toxins, flora and antigens we don’t want entering our bloodstream. CMC inhibits proteins that provide protection against microorganisms. It also promotes the development of cytokines (chemical messages) that signal cells invoking an inflammation response in the gut lining.
The science is enough to concern US science-based consumer advocacy group The Center for Science in the Public Interest. They rate CMC “Caution” and had this to say:
A 2015 study funded by the National Institutes of Health raised some doubts. It found that both CMC and another emulsifier (polysorbate 80) affected gut bacteria and triggered inflammatory bowel disease symptoms and other changes in the gut, as well as obesity and a set of obesity-related disease risk factors known as metabolic syndrome.Chemical Cuisine – Center for Science in the Public Interest
On this basis, it would seem that this ingredient does not belong in fitness, health or weight loss products, as it may be incompatible with consumers’ objectives.