Important dietary carbohydrates such as fructose and sorbitol are incompletely absorbed in the normal small intestine. This malabsorption is sometimes associated with abdominal complaints and diarrhea development, symptoms indistinguishable from those of functional bowel disease. Recently, polymerized forms of fructose (fructans) also were implicated in symptom production in patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Evidence from uncontrolled and controlled challenge studies suggests that malabsorbed sugars (fructose, sorbitol, lactose) and fructans may act as dietary triggers for clinical symptoms suggestive of IBS. Further placebo-controlled studies are needed to obtain definite conclusions about the role of dietary sugar malabsorption in functional bowel disease.