When it comes to choosing low FODMAP foods, smartphone apps such as the Monash University Low FODMAP Diet app and the FODMAP Friendly app are essential tools. They’ll give you all the info you need for choosing low FODMAP wholefoods, such as vegetables, fruits, grains or dairy products. But what happens when the food you’re wanting to eat has an ingredients panel, where the list of ingredients almost looks like a coded message?
In this case, the best thing that you can do is learn some label reading skills so that you’ll be able to decipher that coded message and work out if the food is actually low FODMAP. So here’s 5 essential tips for low FODMAP label reading that will help you decide whether a packaged food is low FODMAP. Note: it’s best to use the tips in the order listed when assessing each product.
Tip 1: Look for a Monash University or FODMAP Friendly logo on the package
The starting point for choosing a low FODMAP packaged food is to see whether the item has been tested for FODMAPs by Monash University or FODMAP Friendly. If it has been tested and was found to be low FODMAP, the product can display a logo from the organisation that did the testing. The logo will look like one of these:
However, not all manufacturers choose to put a logo on their packaging, so just because a logo isn’t there doesn’t mean the food hasn’t been tested. In those situations, what you need to do is search the list of certified foods in the Monash University Low FODMAP Diet app or the FODMAP Friendly app. If you find a specific brand of a packaged food listed in one of those apps, then it’s low FODMAP, even if it doesn’t carry a logo.
A note about FODMAP testing…
While it would be great if all brands of packaged foods were tested for FODMAPs, foods are only tested if the manufacturer chooses to submit them for testing. This process requires the manufacturers to pay a fee, so not all manufacturers will choose to have their products tested. That said, manufacturers don’t ‘buy’ their certification. It’s only granted if their product meets the specified requirements for a low FODMAP product.
So that’s why only a small number of packaged foods have been tested for FODMAPs and you may not be able to find your favourite brands on the apps. But this doesn’t mean that other packaged foods aren’t low in FODMAPs, it simply means they haven’t been tested. To work out whether untested products are low FODMAP, you’ll need to become skilled at label reading so that you know what to avoid and what’s safe to eat. The next 4 tips will help you with that.
Tip 2: Look on the ingredients label for high FODMAP wholefoods
If a product hasn’t been tested for FODMAPs, the first thing to do is look on the ingredients label for any high FODMAP wholefoods. This means reading through each ingredient, one at a time, to look for vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy (or non-dairy alternatives) and meat alternatives (including legumes), that are high FODMAP.
If you find a high FODMAP ingredient, particularly if it’s very high up in the list, then it’s likely the product will be high FODMAP. This is because food labels are arranged according to the proportion of each ingredient within the product, starting with the highest amount and working down to the lowest amount. However, it’s possible for there to be small amounts of high or moderate FODMAP ingredients within a product, yet for a single serving of the product to be low FODMAP. See Tip 5 for more information.
If there aren’t any high FODMAP wholefoods in the ingredients list, then this product may be low FODMAP. However, you still need to make sure that any other ingredients in the product, such as those that have code numbers or that are listed by other names, aren’t high FODMAP additives. See Tips 3 and 4 for more information.
Tip 3: Look for high FODMAP food additives added by manufacturers
Manufacturers can use quite a variety of food additives when preparing packaged foods, but only some of them are high FODMAP. There are two groups of particular concern: polyols and fructans.
Polyols are high FODMAP additives that provide sweetness without adding sugar. For this reason, they’re often used in diet products to lower the energy content of the food. They’re also used in diabetic-friendly products to lower sugar content. And you’ll often find them in ‘sugar-free’ products, including chewing gum and medications.
While the polyols may be listed by their name and are often detectable because they typically end in ‘-ol’, polyols can also be listed by a code number, which may or may not have an ‘e’ before it. The polyols include:
- Sorbitol (E420)
- Mannitol (E421)
- Isomalt (E953)
- Maltitol (E965)
- Lactitol (E966)
- Xylitol (E967)
- Erythritol (E968)
- Polydextrose (E1200). Note that polydextrose is a chain of dextrose molecules and that dextrose is a form of glucose (the D-isomer), which means it should be low FODMAP and not a polyol. However, the manufacturing process used to make polydextrose can result in the final product containing around ~10% sorbitol, so if enough polydextrose is added to a food product, it can become high FODMAP. That said, many products that contain polydextrose won’t have enough added to make it high FODMAP, so not all products with this ingredient will need to be avoided.
Fructans are a high FODMAP prebiotic dietary fibre that’s added to food to boost fibre content, which is why you often see them in gluten-free products that would otherwise be quite low in fibre. One of the most commonly used prebiotic fibres is inulin, an extract of chicory root, which can give a product a creamier mouthfeel without adding fat. For this reason, inulin is often added to dairy products and non-dairy alternatives.
While inulin is the most commonly used of the prebiotic fibre additives, it can be listed on the ingredients panel in a number of different ways. Also, there are other prebiotic fibre sources to avoid. These are the additives that you need to watch out for:
- Inulin. Note: the inulin added by manufacturers is usually an extract from chicory root.
- Chicory root
- FOS. Note: this is the abbreviation for fructooligosaccharides.
- Prebiotic fibre
- Dietary fibre
- Vegetable fibre
- Fruit fibre
Does the presence of high FODMAP food additives automatically mean a product is high FODMAP?
No. It’s possible for a product to contain a small amount of a high FODMAP additive and still be low FODMAP at the recommended serving size. Remember that it’s a ‘low’ FODMAP diet and not a ‘no’ FODMAP diet, so what matters is how much you eat at a given time. The problem though is that you’re not going to know how much of these additives are present in the final product, so unless the product has been tested for FODMAPs (see Tip 1), it’s best to be cautious with these foods during the initial elimination phase of the low FODMAP diet.
Tip 4: Look for other sneaky FODMAPs that might be ‘disguised’
In addition to the high FODMAP food additives (see Tip 3), there are other ingredients that manufacturers add to foods for a variety of reasons. Not everything is high FODMAP though, only certain ingredients. These are the most common sneaky FODMAPs that tend to end up in food products…
Sweeteners other than sugar are often added to foods so that manufacturers don’t have to state “sugar” on the label. This is because we’ve become accustomed to thinking of sugar as ‘bad’ from a nutritional perspective, yet are still learning that most of the alternative sweeteners are actually just another form of sugar and so aren’t any better for us. So, while most people perceive non-sugar sweeteners as healthier, manufacturers will continue to use them within foods.
The sneaky high FODMAP sweeteners that you need to watch for include:
- Agave syrup
- High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
- Fruit juices, purees or concentrates
- Polyols (which can hide as e-numbers, see Tip 3 for more info)
Garlic and onion
On a low FODMAP diet, garlic and onion are two of the worst offenders, both in terms of the symptoms they can trigger and the fact that they’re incredibly common in savoury food products. The problem with these ingredients occurs because manufacturers might add garlic and/or onion into a product but not have to label it as garlic or onion on the ingredients panel. But this isn’t caused by sneakiness on the part of the manufacturers. Instead it’s an issue of convenience since they can use composite terms that could include similar ingredients as well.
The terms to watch out for include:
- Stock/broth. Both of these items will normally include onion, along with other vegetables.
- ‘Spices’, ‘natural flavours’, ‘flavours’ in savoury foods. These terms can often mean that garlic is present, although it could indicate another natural spice or flavour that isn’t garlic. But without confirming it with the manufacturer, you won’t know for sure.
- Dehydrated vegetables. This could indicate onion, but it can also mean that another type of vegetables has been used. Again, you won’t know for sure without confirming it with the manufacturer.
- Salts & seasoning mixes. It’s possible for salts and seasoning mixes to be free from garlic and onion, but unless you can check the fine details, you can’t be sure since they’re often added to provide an increased depth of flavour.
Other sneaky FODMAPs
While you may already have known that sweeteners, garlic and onion are sneaky FODMAPs to watch out for, there are a few other ingredients to consider. These include:
- Added fibre sources. See the section on Fructans in Tip 3.
- Gluten-free flours, including soy, coconut, besan/chickpea, lupin, and amaranth. While some gluten-free flours are low FODMAP, the ones listed here are high FODMAP and need to be avoided if there are large amounts used in a product. Note: why not try making your own low FODMAP flour mix to avoid these high FODMAP gluten-free flours.
- Milk derivatives, including ‘milk solids’ and lactose. When it comes to milk, it’s the lactose that’s the problem, so if a product has milk derivatives in it, it may be high FODMAP. This could include milk solids or lactose, but protein isolates from dairy won’t be high FODMAP since FODMAPs are in the carbohydrate component.
Does the presence of sneaky FODMAPs automatically mean a product is high FODMAP?
No. As is the case for high FODMAP food additives (see Tip 3), it’s possible for a food product to contain a sneaky FODMAP and still be low FODMAP if the amount used is small enough that it’s below the threshold for triggering symptoms. So if these sneaky FODMAPs are very low in the ingredients list, the product may be okay. However, unless a product has been tested for FODMAPs and certified as low FODMAP (see Tip 1), you can’t be completely sure.
Tip 5: Consider portion sizes before ruling out a packaged food
The last, and possibly most crucial, tip for determining if a packaged food is low FODMAP is to consider the portion size. This means considering the recommended serving size of the product vs the amount of the ingredient of concern within the product. This is important because if the amount that’s present is low enough that it’s below the FODMAP threshold, then the final product may be low FODMAP even if a high or moderate FODMAP ingredient is included.
As an example, the Monash app tells us that 12g of almonds is a low FODMAP portion, but that 24g of almonds is high FODMAP. So, if a food product contains almonds, but the amount included is less than 12g, then it will be low FODMAP in terms of the almonds.
Consider it this way…
If a trail mix contains 80% almonds and has a recommended serving size of 30g, this means that one serve of the product contains 25g of almonds. This would be high FODMAP because the amount of almonds exceeds the FODMAP cut off.
But, if a trail mix contains 20% almonds and has a recommended serving size of 30g, this means that one serve of the product contains only 6g of almonds. This would be low FODMAP based on the amount of almonds. However, you’d still need to check that the other ingredients in the trail mix were appropriate for a low FODMAP food before being confident that it was safe to eat.
But can you really be sure that a product is low FODMAP if it hasn’t been tested?
The only way to be 100% certain of whether a product is low FODMAP is to test the final product, at the recommended serving size, to see if the amount of FODMAPs within it exceeds the FODMAP threshold. Since the only way to do this testing is through the organisations described in Tip 1, any products tested in that way will be able to carry a logo declaring them as low FODMAP.
But since there are still relatively few tested food products, although the number is certainly increasing, if you limit yourself to only eating those products that are tested, your choices will be very limited and you’ll have to cook nearly everything that you eat from scratch. So, the next best thing is to decipher the labels yourself and select products that appear to be low FODMAP based on their ingredients.
In these cases, the best we can say is that a product is “low FODMAP based on ingredients”. Essentially this means that if you considered each ingredient separately, based on the amount used in the recommended serving of the food product, that each of those ingredients are individually lower than the FODMAP threshold. This is the same process that we use when creating low FODMAP recipes and most of the time it works quite well.
There are however two catches where it doesn’t work so well:
1. FODMAPs can add up across a recipe/product. This means that while individual ingredients may be below FODMAP thresholds, it’s possible to have several ingredients in one product that together provide so much of a particular FODMAP that it exceeds the FODMAP threshold in the final product. If that happens, even though it was low FODMAP based on ingredients, the final product would be high FODMAP.
2. Food processing can alter FODMAPs. There are certain food processing techniques that can alter FODMAP levels, with some lowering FODMAP content while others increase FODMAP content. An added complication is that some techniques are capable of both lowering and increasing FODMAPs, depending on the foods and the exact processes used. A good example of this is the process of fermentation. The natural fermentation used in sourdough bread making can substantially decrease the fructans in spelt flour. Similarly, the fermentation used to make Worcestershire sauce decreases the fructans from onion and garlic. As such, both sourdough spelt bread and Worcestershire sauce are low FODMAP. Yet fermentation of cabbage to make sauerkraut creates polyols or fructans, depending on the type of cabbage used, making the end result high FODMAP.
So the answer to this question is that you can never be 100% sure that a packaged food is low FODMAP if it hasn’t been tested for FODMAPs. In these cases, you simply have to read the label to see if it sounds low FODMAP and then try it and see how you react. If you don’t react, you can continue using the product. But if you develop symptoms, you should stop using it and ask someone with more experience for advice on why that product may have triggered your symptoms.
Key things to remember about low FODMAP label reading
1. If a food product has been tested and certified as low FODMAP, it’s okay to use even if it contains small amounts of high FODMAP ingredients since it was the final product that was tested for FODMAPs.
2. If a food product hasn’t been tested and certified as low FODMAP, but the ingredients seem to be consistent with a low FODMAP product, then it is “low FODMAP based on ingredients”. However, there’s no guarantee that it’s low FODMAP, so keep an eye on your symptoms when you try a new product.
3. It takes practice to become proficient at low FODMAP label reading. So if you’re new to a low FODMAP diet, be patient and allow extra time for label reading when you’re out grocery shopping. Soon it will become easier and you’ll be able to find more packaged foods that you can enjoy.