5 Sneaky Ingredients In Food That Can Cause Diarrhea

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Some days, you end up doubled over with stomach cramps, serious gas, and unpleasant bowel movements for what you think is no reason at all. You can’t pinpoint anything in particular that would have caused so much…distress.

Well, next time, you might want to dig a little deeper into what you’ve been snacking on throughout the day. Some people may know that specific foods give them gastrointestinal problems, like too much fiber, or for many, dairy. But there’s also a handful of hidden ingredients in packaged foods that can have a laxative effect—leaving you crampy and running to the bathroom post lunchtime.

“For someone who’s all of a sudden having digestive problems, diarrhea, or bowel irregularity, I’d look right away to see what they’re eating,” Felice Schnoll-Sussman, M.D., gastroenterologist and director of the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine, tells SELF. Very often, she says, it’s because of an ingredient they’ve been consuming without even knowing it.

Next time you can’t figure out what to blame, check for these hidden ingredients, which could have a laxative effect, in your packaged foods.

Contrary to what their name suggests, sugar alcohols have no alcohol in them—they’re simply artificial sweeteners, made from carbohydrates tweaked in a lab, that provide fewer calories than sugar and have less of an impact on blood glucose. They’re commonly found in sugar-free gums, candies, and ice cream or other packaged foods labeled as low-sugar or no-sugar-added. The most common ones are maltitol and sorbitol. “These can have a laxative effect and can cause gastric symptoms like bloating, distention, and unrest of the stomach,” Schnoll-Sussman says. That’s because some people just lack the ability to digest them, she explains. “Our bodies were made to digest sugar,” not fake sugar.

The amount people typically eat also can amplify the gastric effects. “When people go on diets, lots of times they try and eat things that are labeled sugar free because it has reduced calories, and what they’ll actually do is eat more of [those foods] than if they ate a regular-calorie food,” Schnoll-Sussman explains. “And that’s probably why they get more of that laxative or gastric effect.”

Olestra, also known by the brand name Olean, is a fake fat that’s used in things like low-fat chips. It had its heyday in the 90s when low-fat was all the rage. But our bodies cannot absorb or digest these “fats,” Schnoll-Sussman says. “Olestra is very commonly known to cause abdominal cramping and loose stools, usually called anal leakage,” she explains. Another problem with fake fats like olestra is that they’re typically not satisfying, which “makes it so common for people to go and eat so much more because they’re not as satiated.” There’s also a psychological component: We think it’s not fattening, so we can eat more.

The FDA used to require a warning label on any olestra-containing products, but has since lifted the requirement. Many products containing olestra have been discontinued, like Lay’s Wow potato chips, Lay’s Light potato chips, and fat-free Pringles. Keep an eye out for this additive, and make sure to check the labels on any “light” or “fat-free” snacks that should normally pack a lot of fat to see what was added as a substitute.

Gums are used as thickening agents in many foods and medications. They’re also used oftentimes as a replacement for gluten. Guar gum comes from a bean plant and is high in fiber, and xanthan gum is a high-fiber carbohydrate derived from fermented corn or soy. Both contain soluble fiber, which is important for digestion and actually helps regulate bowel movements when eaten in moderate amounts. But too much fiber, especially increasing your intake drastically over a short period of time, “can absolutely lead to gastrointestinal problems.” That’s why guar and xanthan gum can cause bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea.

Most commonly found in almond milk, carrageenan is a thickening agent derived from seaweed and algae that may also be used in dairy products like yogurt and cheese. Some research has shown that it can have a laxative effect on the body. “If you eat a large amount, it seems to pull a lot of water into the intestine,” Schnoll-Sussman explains, acting similarly to actual laxative medications. More water in the intestine makes it more slippery, causing looser stool.

If you’re eating and taking in too much vitamin C and your body can’t absorb it, it may speed up how fast the stomach empties, causing cramps, nausea, and diarrhea. “You need to be careful how much you take,” Schnoll-Sussman says, because super high doses may cause some serious discomfort. This can happen if you’re loading up in attempts to ward off a cold. Check your multivitamins and look at how much C you’re getting from the foods you eat. The recommended daily allowance for a non-pregnant adult woman is 75 milligrams—if you’re consuming way more than that and start noticing bowel problems, Schnoll-Sussman recommends reducing the amount.

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