Food Additives That May Trigger Your Reflux

by Jennifer Mitchell Wilson B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional

There are so many triggers for acid reflux that the list can seem overwhelming. Some of the main triggers we are all aware of include: citrus foods and juices, chocolate, fatty foods, spicy foods, coffee, alcohol, tomato and tomato-based products, and some teas. But what about the hidden things in our foods — like food additives — that can trigger an acid reflux flare-up?

Food additives are everywhere and are difficult to avoid if you don’t eat a diet that is made exclusively of whole foods. Here are a few additives you might want to look out for to avoid the burn of reflux.

Sugar alcohol

Sugar alcohol is often used in place of sugar to lower the calorie level of a food while also appealing to health-conscious people who are trying to avoid many of the widely used sugar substitutes. The problem with sugar alcohols lies in the amount you consume. A small amount may have no effect on a person, but let’s say you eat several sugar-free candies made with sugar alcohol. This can trigger gastrointestinal pain, gas, cramping, acid reflux pain, and even loose stools or diarrhea. Those who are really sensitive may get these symptoms even if they only use a small amount of sugar alcohol.

You can determine if sugar alcohol is in a food by reading the label closely. There are also many sugar alcohols that are chemical "cousins" to sugar alcohol. These may include: sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol. You can determine if there is sugar alcohol present in your food by checking for the suffix -ol at the end of the additive name. If you find an additive ending in -ol in your food, and have been experiencing the painful GI symptoms mentioned, it may be wise to discontinue use of the product.

Chicory root

Chicory root and its derivative inulin fiber can be found in a lot of processed food. Now, chicory root on its own, boiled in a tea like Todd Eisner, M.D., mentions in his post about GERD questions, may even be soothing to some people with acid reflux. However, most of the time, chicory root or inulin fiber is added to foods to bump up the fiber content. For some people with acid reflux, this whole form of chicory root can cause similar issues as sugar alcohol: gastrointestinal pain, gas, cramping, and even diarrhea. If you find you are very sensitive to inulin fiber or chicory root, be sure to read labels for their names in the ingredients and check the product’s fiber levels. If it seems to have more fiber than that type of product should include, then you may be looking at this type of hidden additive.


If you look at the ingredient list of most processed foods, carrageenan is bound to be on it. It is one of the main emulsifiers used in processed food. Carrageenan is a polysaccharide that’s derived from red seaweed. In fact, I recently discussed emulsifiers in processed foods that could be contributing to chronic inflammatory disease and other problems in our digestive tracts.

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list of additives that might trigger acid reflux pain. Reading labels and keeping a food journal is a great way to determine if a food or food additive is causing your flare-up.

Jennifer Mitchell Wilson
Meet Our Writer
Jennifer Mitchell Wilson

Jennifer Mitchell Wilson is a dietitian and mother of three girls. Two of her children have dealt with acid reflux disease, food allergies, migraines, and asthma. She has a Bachelor of Science in dietetics from Harding University and has done graduate work in public health and nutrition through Eastern Kentucky University. In addition to writing for HealthCentral, she does patient consults and serves on the Board of Directors for the Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association.