Erythritol: A Perspective on The Benefits and The Dangers of This Common Sugar Substitute
It’s likely that you’ve consumed this sugar substitute without even knowing it. Erythritol is probably already in the food you eat so it pays to understand what exactly it is, how it’s made, and the potential health consequences. This article will give you all the background you need to better understand your diet and make more informed choices. We’ll also discuss several other sugar alternatives to consider as well.
So What Is Erythritol?
Erythritol is an organic compound known as a sugar alcohol. That’s not particularly helpful because sugar alcohols are not actually sugar and don’t cause inebriation. Sugar alcohols are sweet just like regular sugar and are becoming increasingly common in everyday foods. Slowly but surely, sugar alcohols are starting to replace aspartame, sucralose, and other artificial sweeteners.
Erythritol isn’t a new invention; it was discovered by John Stenhouse in 1848. This sugar alcohol is found in some fruits as well as in some fermented foods. It can also be manufactured and for commercial use is produced from fermented corn starch.
Here are some quick facts about Erythritol
Erythritol is 70% as sweet as sugar but only as 6% the calories.
Table sugar has approximately 4 calories per gram
Xylitol has 2.4 calories per gram
Erythritol has just 0.21 calories per gram
Other sugar alcohols such as xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol, and maltitol are also commonly used as commercial sweeteners. However, erythritol does have some benefits compared to those alternatives.
Erythritol Does Not Cause Spikes In Blood Sugar Or Insulin Levels
When evaluating sweeteners it’s often helpful to consider the potential impact on diabetics, who have difficulty metabolizing sugar. Diabetics really value foods that fill the role of sugar without the same health effects. Fortunately, erythritol has no adverse effect on blood glucose levels. In 1994 a Japanese study found that erythritol did not increase glucose or insulin in test subjects. In addition, erythritol had no effect on levels of cholesterol, triacylglycerol or free fatty acids. This makes erythritol a safe alternative for diabetics and others with concerns about their blood glucose levels.
Better Dental Health
Erythritol might be a sugar but it certainly doesn’t have the same impact on dental health as regular sugars. When bacteria break down most sugars they quickly grow and secrete acid that can damage your teeth. Unlike regular sugar, bacteria cannot break down erythritol, eliminating the risk of damage or eventual tooth decay. You can see this by just walking around a convenience store. Erythritol and xylitol are commonly included in “tooth friendly” products specifically because they can improve your dental health. This isn’t to say that erythritol is good for teeth, but it doesn’t have the adverse impact of traditional sugar.
One particular study is frequently cited to demonstrate that erythritol doesn’t impact dental health. A double-blind, randomized trial involving 485 school students showed that erythritol caused fewer cavities than xylitol, or sorbitol. In the trial, students each consumed 12 candies that contained with those three sugar alcohols every school day. At the conclusion of the study, researchers observed that the children who had consumed erythritol developed fewer cavities than those who had received sorbitol or xylitol. In addition, the students that consumed erythritol took longer to develop cavities. Some research shows that erythritol can even promote dental and gum health.
While there are clearly benefits to consuming erythritol rather than table sugar, there are some side effects that need to be addressed. The substance can cause digestive problems when consumed in large quantities, particularly in a short period of time. Side effects can include stomach cramps, diarrhea, and bloating. The issue is that erythritol does not easily break down in water. As a result, your body may not be able to digest erythritol as quickly as you consume it. Consuming large amounts of erythritol could cause some embarrassing short-term health effects.
Erythritol Can Contribute To Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome is a chronic condition that affects the colon and can lead to cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and constipation. People with irritable bowel syndrome should avoid consuming erythritol, which can exacerbate their symptoms.
Erythritol Is Easier To Digest Than Other Sweeteners
Humans cannot completely process sugar alcohols. Consumption of sugar alcohols often causes mild diarrhea and related gastrointestinal issues. However, when erythritol is consumed, 90% of the sugar alcohol is absorbed by the small intestine. That prevents the gastrointestinal issues that might otherwise occur. Erythritol is much easier to digest than sugar alcohols such as maltitol and sorbitol. Consuming any sweetener in large quantities is likely to have at least some short-term consequences.
How Is Erythritol Made?
There are some factors that might cause concern when considering erythritol as a sweetener. While it does occur naturally, food companies often manufacture Erythritol from genetically modified corn. While research overwhelmingly suggests that genetically modified food is safe for consumers, some scientists are still skeptical. There is still a sizable group of academics and researchers who think that GMOs should not be introduced into the food supply without more extensive testing.
Erythritol can actually be used as a pesticide and food laced with erythritol is deadly to fruit flies. Fruit flies that consume the substance can’t lay new eggs, and recently laid eggs won’t hatch. While erythritol’s affect on fruit flies does not necessarily suggest an adverse impact on humans, it understandably could be troubling for some consumers.
Erythritol May Be Mixed With Other Artificial Sweeteners
One reason that pure erythritol isn’t used that frequently is that it’s not particularly sweet. This is definitely true when compared to traditional sugar. Erythritol’s flavor is sometimes described as crisp or cool, rather than sweet. This is the reason why erythritol is often mixed with other sweeteners to give it a more “traditional” sweet taste. That’s not necessarily a problem but the issue is that those additives are usually artificial. Additives like aspartame or acesulfame potassium can potentially have health consequences. For example, Aspartame can cause anxiety and depression in some people. It can also lead to short-term memory loss in consumers who are already predisposed to dementia. Aspartame can also cause weight gain, muscle weakness, and fatigue.
While erythritol is a “natural” sweetener, it’s not necessarily sweet enough for consumers. The substance is often combined with other artificial ingredients that could cause health issues if consumed in large quantities. Another challenge is that it might not be clear if erythritol is “pure” or has been mixed with other substances. Consumer worried about the health consequences of artificial sweeteners or other additives should do their research before consuming products containing those additives.
Erythritol Has No Nutritional Value
This could be of concern to parents given that erythritol is often found in consumer products such as soft drinks, candy, and chewing gum. Children need minerals and vitamins for health, especially at a young age, and erythritol has no nutritional value. However, as part of a balanced diet erythritol is certainly superior to traditional sugar and the other chemicals that are often found in children’s food.
Erythritol May Cause Weight Gain
While erythritol does not affect insulin or glucose levels, it might actually cause you to gain weight. Erythritol does not raise satiety hormones like Glucagon-like peptide (GLP-1), and peptide YY (PYY). But what does that actually mean? Those hormones signal your brain when you’ve had enough to eat and sugar usually triggers their production. Erythritol doesn’t trigger that production so these hormones never provide the “full” signal you normally expect. Consuming large quantities of erythritol can cause weight gain because those signals are disrupted and it becomes more difficult to regulate your food intake.
Allergies And Other Conditions
In an article published in 2000 in the Journal of Dermatology, a young woman reportedly developed a severe skin reaction after consuming a beverage containing erythritol. While these reactions are quite rare, consumers should still be cautious if they have allergies and don’t know how their body might react to erythritol. If you require treatment for a severe allergic response and can’t figure out the cause, doctors will often ask how about your diet. There is no indication that erythritol triggers higher rates of allergic reactions than other sweeteners. However, everyone is different and a substance that causes no adverse effects in one person can have significant consequences for someone else.
So What Are The Alternatives?
It’s generally advisable to limit the amount of sugar in your diet. That’s not particularly helpful given that erythritol has no nutritional value and shouldn’t be consumed in large quantities. So what other sweeteners are available? There are actually a lot of options but you need to consider the benefits and possible health effects.
Stevia is sourced from an herbal plant of the same name and shouldn’t be confused with Truvia. Stevia has been proven to be an attractive alternative to sugar alcohols as well as traditional sugar. In South America, the substance has long history of being used to sweeten tea, various medicines, and candy. As a natural sweetener that is actually sweeter than traditional sugar, Stevia may be a healthier option than sugar alcohols. This is especially true if you can buy pure Stevia rather than Stevia mixed with synthetic additives. People don’t typically taste Stevia as quickly as traditional sugar but its flavor generally lasts longer.
Raw honey is literally just all natural, unfiltered sweetener. Honeybees consume nectar from various flowers and secret honey, which they store throughout their hive. Raw honey has great nutritional value and can treat allergy symptoms, coughs, and sleep disorders. This is different from processed honey, which loses most of its nutritional value. Raw honey is a ‘superfood’ that can stay fresh for many years without any change in flavor. It can even be used to treat wounds because when it comes in contact with water, it creates a natural sterilizer (hydrogen peroxide). Raw honey offers virtually all of the benefits of natural sweeteners with none of the health consequences. However, doctors often advise that parents not feed honey to small children since it can contain trace amounts of bacteria. That bacteria is harmless to adults but could harm children whose immune system is not fully developed.
The Monk Fruit, a small melon found in Asia, has been used as a natural sweetener for hundreds of years. Monk Fruit is significantly sweeter than sugar and might be the best natural alternative. The fruit can eliminate the need to use high-calorie table sugar. An added benefit is that the fruit contains no calories and does not affect blood sugar or insulin levels. It’s even high in antioxidants, leading some to call it the “longevity fruit”. Monk Fruit is an all around great food that can slow aging and reinforce a healthy lifestyle.
Making More Informed Diet Decisions
You are what you eat. Your diet directly contributes to your ability to live a healthy lifestyle and tackle the challenges of each day. While food science and chemical engineering might have some benefits, it does mean that the food supply is increasingly synthetic and laden with chemicals. In some cases, it can be hard to even identify what those ingredients are and how they might affect your body. It’s important to ask what’s in our food, where our food comes from, and make the most informed choices possible.
Erythritol has some specific advantages over sugar. It has no calories, won’t impact blood sugar levels, and is produced naturally. It also won’t impact dental health, which is often a problem with sugar and other sweeteners. However, it can cause weight gain and in some cases could trigger an allergic reaction. You’ll need to weigh the benefits against the potential health risks and decide if erythritol is right for your diet. If not, you can consider other options such as Stevia, Raw Honey, and Monk Fruit. It’s possible to get personalized vitamins and it’s clearly possible to get a sweetener that’s right for you.