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Sugar and Bloating

Posted 7 years ago by Adam

There has been a lot in the press lately about the dangers of consuming too much sugar. Therefore I wanted to look into the idea that sugar can cause digestive issues, in particular bloating.


Bloating and wind, together with other gastric symptoms, can sometimes be caused by a high intake of sugar. For instance, if your digestive system is overloaded with it, or if you have problems processing simple sugars or glucose from carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, rice and potatoes. Both symptoms can occur if the sugars you ingest are poorly absorbed in the small intestine and they end up entering the large intestine. At this stage they can act as food for gas-producing (pathogenic) bacteria which reside within the intestines. The resulting gases (hydrogen, methane, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide) can cause abdominal bloating and excessive gas in the bowel.

Research into sugars & bloating

Previous medical studies have shown that poor absorption of sugars leads to bowel problems. One study in 2006 found that 72% of patients with abdominal bloating and excessive wind had some problem with the absorption of lactose, fructose or sorbitol (a sweetener originally derived from fruit but now commercially produced), and 65% had symptoms of sugar intolerance.[1]  Another study found that 90% of patients with abdominal complaints were not properly absorbing at least one type [2].  

Simple and Complex Carbohydrates

Table sugar and sugar added to drinks and foods such as puddings and cakes are simple carbohydrates, while the starch in bread, pasta, cereals, rice and potatoes are complex carbohydrates which are converted by the body into glucose and glycogen.

These lovely cakes could make you bloated!
Click here to see what foods you should be eating. 

Simple sugars are usually quickly absorbed and provide energy for the body. When the body has enough glucose, the rest of the intake is converted into glycogen and stored for future use. Sugars include fructose from fruit and honey, sucrose from fruit and anything added from sugar cane or sugar beet, lactose from milk and dairy products, maltose from malted wheat or barley, and glucose from honey and fruit.

When carbohydrates such as bread are broken down they are converted into glucose by the body. This triggers the release of the hormone serotonin (which provides a sense of pleasure and positive moods) and endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers. While carbohydrates are valuable to both the body and mind, sugar itself offers little in terms of nutritional benefit, can cause significant variations in blood sugar levels, and also contributes to tooth decay.

Cutting down on sugar

If you suffer from excess bloating you may want to assess the carbohydrate proportion of your meals and whether you are fully absorbing these sugars. Gas producing bacteria is kept in check by monitoring your intake and feeding the friendly (less gas producing) bacteria with fibre and vegetables instead. If you are avoiding it be aware that the sugar content foods and drinks is not always obvious on food packaging, and may be hidden in all sorts of different names. For example, you might see a small amount advertised on the label of a bottle of chicken stock, but also in the list of ingredients is maltose, sugar derived from starch.  Also watch out for barley malt extract powder, dextrose, corn syrup and dried glucose syrup.


An interesting fact to bear in mind is that food manufacturers have to list the largest ingredient first in their list. They know this; so to avoid having to put 'cane sugar' as the first ingredient (and therefore potentially reflect badly on their product), they are starting to put multiple forms of sugar in, but in smaller amounts, so these do not need to be listed first.  For example you may find a product which contains glucose, cane sugar, sucrose, molasses and so on. 

Agave nectar is currently being researched as a potentially better alternative sweetener to sucrose and high fructose corn syrup (often used as a sweetener in processed foods). It is thought that agave can improve the body’s glucose control, and help reduce glucose intolerance which can lead to type 2 diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure) and obesity.

Sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharine and sucralose are alternatives to sugar, but there are people who believe that these can have negative side effects and could potentially lead to disease.

If you find that you're bloated even after you've cut down on sugar, read our top natural remedies for bloating.

So with all this in mind…if it tastes great...enjoy in moderation!  

Do you think sugar ever causes you digestive issues like bloating? 


1. Clinical Nutrition Oct 2006

2. American Journal of Gastroenterology Dec 1993

Image courtesy of stu_spivack at ms.Tea

About Adam Whitby

Adam has been involved in health and medicine for over thirty years, mostly reviewing clinical studies for general practitioners, writing patient information leaflets and producing medical video programmes.

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