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Overdosing on Chocolate Causes Disastrous Diarrhea

Q. Recently we bought some sugar-free chocolates. All four of us who “indulged” got intestinal upsets of varying degrees. When we called the candy store to report a possible food-poisoning problem, the lady informed us the candy contains sorbitol and malitol, which are used as laxatives in hospitals.

Can you elaborate? Surely, if our reaction is common, such candy would not have many sales.

A. Sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol and malitol are used as sugar substitutes in candies and gum. Many of these sweeteners are found in natural products: sorbitol in mountain ash berries, xylitol in birch trees and mannitol in beets.

These products are absorbed slowly and incompletely. As a consequence, they attract water into the lower digestive tract and can cause diarrhea if consumed in excess.

Sugarless chocolate and candy are not the only culprits. Here is what happened to someone who overindulged in sugarless gum:

Q. I have a nervous stomach. This results in frequent, unpredictable bouts of diarrhea. I have also been chewing sugarless gum daily for years.

I just heard that sugarless gum can combat constipation. Does that mean it could also cause diarrhea? Could my chewing gum be contributing to my digestive problems?

This story is not uncommon. Here is another:

Q. My husband is plagued with diarrhea. He’ll be okay for a week or so. Then for no apparent reason, he has diarrhea. He’s been eating two coconut macaroons a day for about two weeks. We thought that had taken care of the problem, but it appeared again today.

I read that sugarless gum could cause diarrhea. He chews it every day. Can you tell me about this?

A. Many readers report that eating two coconut macaroon cookies daily helps control their chronic diarrhea. But why treat a problem that might be avoided?

Sugarless gum could be the culprit in your husband’s case. Sweeteners in sugarless gum such as sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol and xylitol are poorly absorbed from the digestive tract. When the residue reaches the large intestine, it can cause gas and diarrhea. Your husband should try giving up the gum to see if that solves the problem.

Anyone who would like to learn more about natural treatments for either diarrhea or constipation may want to check out our book from National Geographic, The People’s Pharmacy Guide to Quick & Handy Home Remedies. We have lots of inexpensive and helpful tips for overcoming digestive distress.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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