If the title has you bracing yourself for another vapid lecture on “clean eating,” worry not, my friends.
Because I’m not here to fear-monger about soy, gluten, or some demonstrably harmless chemicals in your food.
Instead, I’m talking news you can use.
Information that you can put into action from this point forward that will help you dodge a veritable disaster during your next adventure.
And it all boils down to two simple words: sugar alcohols.
Picture it, Sicily, 1922
Imagine that it’s a bright summer afternoon & you’re enjoying a new spot you’ve been wanting to try for ages.
The sun is shimmering through the canopy, the soft melodies of songbirds alight on your ears & a light breeze keeps you comfy & cool.
The trails are challenging yet clearly marked, and the views are humbling & spectacular.
And you can’t help but wonder – does it get any better?
But before long, your body begs to differ.
There’s a rumble in your belly, and we’re not talking some innocuous Winnie the Pooh nonsense.
No…this rumble’s comin’ in hot.
You do your best to make a hasty descent, but your normally skippy gait is slowed by the ungovernable protest taking shape in your gut.
And before you can cry, “FIRE IN THE HOLE!,” your tranquil afternoon transforms into a full-throttle nuclear disaster.
While such episodes can arise for a number of reasons, the last thing you want to do is encourage them.
Because short of being struck by lightning or losing a limb, nothing dulls your outdoor mojo like a 5-alarm GI emergency.
And while you can’t control every factor that might influence it, you can control what you eat – and what you avoid – which can make all the difference.
Sneaky little bastards
Sugar alcohols such as maltitol, mannitol, xylitol & sorbitol find their way into a number of products, but of particular interest are foods like protein & granola bars.
A steady favorite of hikers, backpackers & kayakers, they’re small, lightweight & rarely spoil, yet they pack sufficient carbs & protein to replenish glycogen, rebuild muscle & satisfy your hunger.
And if you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that there are about 18 billion brands & flavors from which to choose (just a rough estimate here). And with options ranging from sweet to savory, anyone can find something they enjoy.
And for the most part these bars are an excellent choice for all of the reasons noted above.
That is, unless they’re harboring these insidious little beasts.
As sugar alternatives, sugar alcohols are often favored to keep sugar & calories low while still delivering a sweetness almost identical to sucrose.
But while their flavor is reminiscent of table sugar, their side effects will leave wishing you were never born.
How they work
Our bodies can only absorb half of the carbohydrates in these sugar alcohols – which is a great strategy for lowering calories.
But you know what isn’t so great?
What happens to the other half.
Because the carbohydrates that remain undigested promote osmosis in your gut.
If you recall, that’s the handy little process by which a solvent passes through a semi-permeable membrane from a less concentrated solution towards a more concentrated solution.
And what’s a semi-permeable membrane?
The lining of your intestines.
And what are solvents?
The stuff on either side of your intestines.
So what happens?
Those undigested sugars pull water across your intestinal membranes & into your colon.
Aaaandd…what happens when there is an abundance of water in your colon?
In case you’re wondering – it’s goes exactly as you’d expect.
Indeed, all of that water has to go somewhere, and before you know it, your bum will feel like Beehive Geyser on full blast.
And as it’s sputtering, gurgling & kicking through your insides, it will take everything in its path along with it.
Including your dignity.
Avoiding this barrel of warthogs
If you want to avoid this most unfortunate of afflictions, there’s a simple solution: always check the label.
You’re probably already in the habit, but checking the ingredient labels of any packaged foods you eat before or during a hike is well worth the few extra moments of effort.
And if you see maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol or xylitol – especially towards the beginning of the ingredient list – run away.
In my experience, they’re especially common in chocolate or various coated bars. But I’ve also seen them in candies, protein powders & packaged snacks that might otherwise fly under your radar.
Luckily, erythritol does not seem to have this impact on your system. So if you favor it to sweeten drinks, baked goods, or you see it in a favorite snack, you should be okay as long as you aren’t consuming massive quantities.
Though you can always do a test run before you pack it for an outing just to be sure.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a cast-iron stomach, or you only consume these alcohols in very small quantities, you may not need to worry.
But for most of us, the risks far outweigh the benefits – especially when you’re outdoors & nowhere near some decent facilities that could accommodate your misery.
And while you could also avoid this issue by making all of your own food – that strategy doesn’t work for everyone.
And if it doesn’t work for you, that’s okay.
Because sometimes, you want something quick & lightweight to pop in your pack with a minimum of fuss.
And when you’re burning energy on the trails or on the water, you need a solid snack that will keep you going.
Just remember to choose carefully, or that might take on a whole new meaning.