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Clean Pantry

Gut-Friendly Packaged Foods Are Everywhere. But Are They Actually Good for Your Digestive Health?

The hottest new trend in packaged foods and beverages? Gut-friendly, probiotic-filled treats meant to satisfy your sweet tooth and your digestive system.

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Everyone’s thinking about their gut health, and as a result, it’s now easier than ever to find gut-healthy or gut-friendly foods and beverages at your local grocery store. Packaged foods are finally available for those looking for low-FODMAP, pre- or probiotics and no artificial sweeteners. And they’re kind of irresistible, popping up on store shelves in the form of cookies, snack bars, brownies and chips.  

At first glance, many of these treats sound far too good to be true – especially for those hoping to avoid gut woes after indulging in them. So, are these packaged foods and drinks worth trying? Or are they less gut-friendly than they seem?

Packaged foods are starting to feature ingredients that are better for your gut

Gut-friendly foods and drinks are popping up on store shelves, and many sound like total treats. Poppi, for example, is a sweet-tasting soda that includes gut-friendly ingredients like prebiotics and apple cider vinegar (a long-touted liquid for digestive wellness). Similarly, Belli Welli is a snack bar made with probiotics as well as low-FODMAP friendly ingredients. And those are just two examples of the gut-boosting options you can enjoy.

Prebiotics, probiotics and even postbiotics are going mainstream, sneaking into everything from breakfast cereals to grab-and-go snacks like these. And so too are food products formulated to be gentle on your digestive system, with benefits like low-FODMAP ingredients, SIBO-friendly ingredients and fewer irritants overall. These foods often also tout reduced sugar, less added sugar and few to no sugar alcohols. 

These popular foods and drinks are making gut health more mainstream – and they’re also making it easier than ever to keep your digestive well-being in mind as you snack or shop. With an emphasis on potentially beneficial ingredients like fiber, healthy fats and polyphenol-rich foods, these packaged foods are convenient ways to snack without worrying about how your digestive system may be impacted. 

“Gut healthy” doesn’t always equal low in sugar

However gut-friendly a packaged food may be, sugar can still be an area of concern. Even when packaged foods claim to be free of artificial ingredients and refined sugar, they can still contain added sugar. In fact, a report from the University of California San Francisco points out that 74 percent of processed foods available today contain added sugar.

Added sugar – and high-sugar foods in general – aren’t exactly gut-friendly. Research suggests that animals on high-fat, high-sugar diets (like a diet rich in processed foods) tend to have less diverse gut flora. Plus, research has shown that sugar can slow down the production of key proteins that are essential for maintaining healthy gut flora. 

And there are key nutritional differences between natural sugars and added sugars, As Elizabeth Shaw, MS RDN CPT, nutrition expert and author at ShawSimpleSwaps.com, points out, “There is a difference in natural versus added sugars. Natural sugars come from whole foods like fruits and vegetables that offer more nutrients for their caloric buck, whereas added sugars provide very little to no other nutrition other than sugar. It’s important to differentiate the two when looking at product packaging and check for the total of added sugars, not total sugars.” 

How much added sugar is too much? “The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugar consumption to no more than 10 percent of your daily calories. I recommend my clients stay under 6 grams of added sugars per packaged “healthy” food item,” Shaw says. 

So, check the label when you’re shopping for gut-friendly treats, snacks and sweets to ensure you choose foods that are under 6 grams. Poppi’s drinks are a good example, with each prebiotic bev clocking in at 5 grams of total sugars or less.

Keep an eye out for additives, too

As Dr. Charles Tabone, N.M.D., the practitioner at Los Angeles-based Pause Studio, explains, it’s not just the sugar you need to watch out for when you’re picking up a packaged food product that claims it’s good for your gut. “Sugar can definitely change the microbiome and put into it something that may not be as beneficial,” he explains. “[But] sugar is not necessarily the root of all evil. I’d say some of the time, packaged foods also have a lot of food additives or artificial sugars like sorbitol and xylitol. These types of things don’t absorb into the bloodstream, but they stay in the gut and cause a lot of fermentation and aggravation.”

Which additives, exactly, can be a potential point of concern? Here’s a brief list of additives that research suggests may be less than ideal:

Always look at the nutrition label and ingredients list

Regardless of how many probiotics are present in a packaged food or how digestion-friendly it advertises itself to be, it’s important to still take a close look at the nutrition label and ingredients list. Good-for-your-gut packaged foods do exist – but the truth is right on the label.

“Packaged foods can provide gut health benefits, but the type, nutrient composition and functionality of the packaged food will certainly play a role in the extent of the benefits it provide,” Shaw explains. “With that said, packaged foods are convenient, but so is a banana, or other simple, whole foods, like oats or an apple. If someone is looking to improve their gut health on a budget for the long-term, I always recommend focusing on the tried-and-true whole foods first before investing in trendy, high-cost functional food products.”

For recipes and meal plans that include whole foods that may benefit your gut, keep reading: