why erythritol is one of the best sugar substitutes you’ve probably never heard of

Jill Bridges, SATI STAFF

When talking about artificial sugars, many names come to mind: sucralose, sorbitol, aspartame, xylitol, saccharin and others. But one name that many people do not know about — but perhaps should — is “erythritol.”

Because it offers sweetness without accompanying calories or an increase in blood sugar levels, erythritol has been embraced as a way for people to control their calorie intake and glucose-related conditions like diabetes and metabolic syndrome. It may also offer some more unexpected benefits, such as acting as a powerful antioxidant!

At the same time, erythritol does have side effects when consumed in large amounts, leading to its use as a component of mixed sweeteners. For example, the popular sweetener brand Truvia contains stevia-derived rebiana and erythritol along with some natural flavoring. Yet, studies we will describe below show that it creates fewer side effects than other sugar alcohols and has no known toxic dose.

If you want to learn more about erythritol, including the answer to “is erythritol safe?” then read on for a comprehensive guide to the sublime sweetener.

What, exactly, is erythritol?

As mentioned above, erythritol is a compound known as a “sugar alcohol.” An erythritol molecule does not contain any ethanol, the intoxicating ingredient in alcoholic drinks, nor does it have any sugar. Instead, the molecule’s structure is similar to an alcohol molecule, and biologically it acts similar to an energy-producing glucose molecule without actually providing much caloric energy.

Pronounced like er-rith-rit-ol, erythritol is a sugar alcohol like xylitol and sorbitol. Like other sugar alcohols, it tastes sweet but has next to zero calories. It occurs naturally in small amounts in certain fermented foods, like wine, sake and soy sauce [1]. Recognizing this, industrial scientists determined a way to mass-manufacture erythritol using yeast and a fermentation process, which we will describe in greater detail below. It can also be found in small amounts in fresh fruits like watermelon, pears and grapes [2].

Like xylitol, erythritol has a cooling effect when dissolved on the tongue, leading to an “icy” flavor or sensation. For this reason, erythritol is sometimes used in mint-flavored products, especially ice creams, candies and in minty cake frostings. Adding other ingredients can curb this “cooling” sensation, including use of inulin, which has an opposite warming effect.

How is erythritol made?

Most commonly, erythritol starts with a starchy base that is fermented using a type of yeast under specific conditions, which produce erythritol in high enough amounts to be purified, processed and distributed to other food manufacturers or commercial packagers. Corn is almost always used as the main raw ingredient to create erythritol [3].

To begin the process, manufacturers must first extract pure glucose from the corn’s long starch chains. The resulting product is almost pure glucose, which is fed into fermentation vats.

Fermentation is the same process that can convert grapes into wine and grain into beer or pure distilled alcohol. In this process, yeast convert glucose into alcohol. In the case of making erythritol, the yeast-like fungus Moniliella pollinis is used, which converts the glucose into erythritol instead of ethanol.

The product is then cleaned using absorbing materials and filters, completely removing the fungus used to produce the erythritol [4]. This filtered broth is then cooled, causing pure erythritol to crystallize into a solid and fall out, leaving behind a pure erythritol substance. The erythritol may be then used as a powder or allowed to crystallize further before being spun in a centrifuge to separate different granule sizes.

Is erythritol safe to use as a sugar substitute or ingredient?

Overall, erythritol is very safe to consume if it is in most products because the FDA maintains “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) upper limits on how much can be used. As a sugar substitute in coffee, baked goods and other applications, pure erythritol does not have any side effects as long as the effective dose is less than 50 g, roughly the equivalent of 1/4 to 1/3 of a cup, depending on the granule size.

Even at extremely large doses, researchers have failed to observe any toxic effects of erythritol. A literature review of related experiments describes studies where researchers gave high doses of erythritol to rats, mice and dogs. The researcher drew the conclusion that erythritol is not toxic in any way, including to fetuses of pregnant animals [5].

Erythritol vs. xylitol and other sugar alcohols

Compared to other sugar alcohols, such as xylitol and sorbitol, the side effects of erythritol are minimal and occur at a much higher dose [6]. Some people report having diarrhea after consuming just a few grams of xylitol, for instance. Others report feeling bloating, nausea, indigestion and gas.

Erythritol’s potential side effects are much more mild. Far fewer people report feeling indigestion and other stomach problems at equivalent doses. This difference lies in the fact that the lower intestine can absorb erythritol almost completely. It gets filtered out by the kidneys and is then excreted in urine completely unchanged.

At higher doses above 50 grams, some people report feeling nauseous, bloated, or having a rumbling stomach. This dose can be avoided by consuming foods already containing measured amounts of erythritol or by avoiding use of 50 grams of erythritol in a single use. However, since most people only need 1-2 grams for their coffee, erythritol can be consumed safely as a sugar substitute in moderation.

Additionally, erythritol provides a host of unexpected benefits, especially for those who want to control their glucose or calorie intake. Read on if you are interested in learning about the six health benefits of erythritol.

1. Low calorie

Erythritol tastes 70 percent as sweet as table sugar (sucrose), but it only contains five percent of the calories [7]! This energy makeup means that erythritol has one of the lowest calorie counts for artificial sweeteners.

For example, a gram of table sugar (1/4 teaspoon) contains four calories while an equivalent amount of xylitol has 2.4 calories. By comparison, erythritol only has 0.24 calories per gram. Also, erythritol may have even less actual calories because it is not digested like a normal compound would be. Instead, most of it is absorbed early on in digestion and then extracted into the urine.

Since erythritol is neither a source of glucose or calories, it can help people reduce their calorie intake of certain foods that normally cause high blood sugar levels and possible weight gain.

2. Can help people manage diabetes, obesity and heart disease

Since erythritol cannot be digested, it makes for a perfect substitute for those with diabetes and similar conditions. Studies of erythritol’s effects conclude that it does not affect blood glucose levels or cause an increase in insulin production in any way [8]. These properties give erythritol a very low glycemic index between one and zero.

Metabolic syndrome refers to a host of conditions that are essentially markers of increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke and other related conditions. Around 50 percent of the U.S. population over 60 years and older is estimated to have these risk markers as of 2012 [9]. The toll these health conditions could have on our population is incalculable.

Individuals can mitigate metabolic syndrome or prevent it through avoiding foods that raise their insulin levels, blood glucose levels and blood triglycerides.

When used as a substitute for normal sugar, products like erythritol can help these individuals manage weight gain, calorie intake and blood pressure. An aforementioned study also noted that erythritol did not have a negative effect on blood triglycerides or cholesterol, [8] making it safe for those trying to manage metabolic syndrome, obesity and related conditions.

3. Does not cause cavities or hurt dental health

Even though it is similar to sugar, erythritol does not feed harmful bacteria in the mouth like Streptococcus mutan. Normally, sugar and starchy compounds feeds these bacteria, causing them to excrete acids on your tooth enamel, causing tooth decay and cavities.

Bacterial films can also cause issues with gums trying to cover the surface of teeth and function normally. Redness, irritation and even cell death can occur, leading to periodontal disease and possible tooth loss. According to a study by the CDC, around half of Americans over the age of 18 have some form of periodontal disease [10].

Like other sugar alcohols, erythritol does not cause bacteria to propagate in the mouth or secrete acids. Studies show that using erythritol can help prevent cavities compared to consuming actual sugar [11]. One study even found that erythritol prevented cavities to an even greater degree than xylitol, which is known to actively kill mouth bacteria [12].

4. Might work as a potent antioxidant, helping those with diabetes

While erythritol has next to no nutritional content, it may be able to work as an antioxidant on its own. Antioxidants are compounds that naturally subdue free radicals, which are oxidizing agents that can cause damage to molecules within cells and even within our DNA.

In the human body, free radicals are created all the time through both natural, normal processes and irregularities in these processes. The result is an imbalanced molecule hunting around for an extra electron. Chain reactions often result, a condition called “oxidative stress.”

Scientists attribute free radical damage to many effects of aging [13]. As free radicals cause damage to our DNA, our cells replicate less effectively, causing deterioration in tissues. Free radicals are also theorized to greatly increase the risk of developing cancer as mutated DNA leads to tumorous growth [14].

In the case of erythritol, the observed antioxidant effects were described as making it an “excellent HO* radical scavenger [15].”  Researchers suggested that erythritol may help reduce a state of oxidative stress in individuals with diabetes, including an ability to protect against blood vessel damage that results from high blood sugar.

5. Easy on the digestive system

As described above, many people report a sensitivity to other sugar alcohols. Xylitol in particular can induce stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhea and other issues in a minority of patients during studies. These effects can diminish over time as individuals gradually add more sugar alcohol to their diet.

The great thing about erythritol is that it is quickly removed from the digestive tract, avoiding the related issues. One study even fed individuals 1/100th of their weight in erythritol, concluding that that dose had no negative side effects aside from an increased frequency and volume of urination [16].

These qualities make erythritol a particularly appealing sugar substitute for those trying to manage conditions like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, metabolic syndrome and more. When combined with bulking agents and other sweeteners, erythritol can even help people eat things they love again, like home-baked goods.

6. Help avoid sugar-related health complications

Sugars can wreak havoc on our bodies and cause all sorts of related health issues. One study found that individuals who obtained 25 percent or more of their daily calories from sugar were twice as likely to die from a related heart disease when compared with individuals who had less than 10 percent added sugar in their diet [17].

Fortunately, products like erythritol can reduce sugar intake either by itself or in combination with other sweeteners, including sugary ones.

For instance, manufactured erythritol can be used as an ingredient that adds bulk and sugar-like crystals to substances like the incredibly sweet rebiana, a sweetening agent derived from stevia plants. Erythritol can also be added alongside sugar to reduce the calorie count of products like sports drinks and add a bit of flavor.

By using erythritol to reduce or completely remove the amount of sugar in a product, people of all kinds can enjoy a healthier lifestyle with reduced calories and reduced risk of chronic, frequently fatal diseases. Those with pre-existing chronic conditions should particularly benefit from reducing sugar in their diet.

7. Avoid sugar crashes after workouts

Erythritol can also help avoid the dreaded “sugar crash” that occurs after eating foods high in carbohydrates or simple sugars.

When people consume a lot of sugar, such as drinking a sports drink all at once, the body has to create more insulin to keep up. As a result, the increased insulin quickly moves the resulting glucose to cells, leading to a “jumpy” energy spurt but then an inevitable crash. They may feel sluggish or sleepy soon after the “sugar high” wears off.

Erythritol can help these individuals reduce their calorie intake from simple sugars, allowing them to eat other foods as a longer-term energy source instead. Timing is important in nutrition, especially when trying to recover from a workout, so individuals trying to obtain maximum benefit must carefully measure their intake of carbohydrates and protein while avoiding simple sugars.

Eating erythritol safely

Even though erythritol has many health benefits, individuals should take care when introducing it into their diet. Do not use pure erythritol as a 1:1 substitute for sugar in recipes, for instance, since consuming over 1/3 of a cup’s worth in one sitting could lead to feelings of nausea or gastrointestinal discomfort.

Mixtures of erythritol and other substances are available, such as Truvia and Lakanto, that can make erythritol both more easy to consume and more palatable. These products are generally more appropriate for using as a 1:1 substitute for sugar.

Additionally, those with diabetes and prediabetes should speak with their doctor about insulin dosage prior to making major changes to their diet. If you are going to significantly reduce the amount of calories or glucose-raising foods you consume, you may need to lower your insulin dosage to prevent issues.

In that light, erythritol and its derivative products should be enjoyed occasionally as a substitute for unhealthy snacks, desserts and drinks. Everyone should generally eat a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats. Regular exercise is also important to reduce risk factors like hypertension or high fasting glucose levels [18].

The Sati line

Replacing sugar with sugar-free alternatives like erythritol can help to dramatically reduce negative health consequences like these while helping individuals make smarter dietary choices overall. In addition, erythritol provides the following health benefits:

  1. Low in calories
  2. Can help control diabetes conditions
  3. Can reduce risks of heart disease, control factors related to obesity
  4. Does not have negative dental health impacts, helps control cavities
  5. Can work as a potent antioxidant, reducing free radicals and possibly helping with related diabetes complications
  6. Easy to digest, causing less complications compared to other sugar alcohols and sugar substitutes

In light of all these benefits, individuals worried about their nutrition or health owe it to themselves to explore the possibilities that erythritol can offer. You can try buying pure erythritol and consuming it in gradual doses with coffee or in other applications in lieu of added sugar. You can also sample blended sugar substitutes that use erythritol as a primary ingredient, turning any baking recipe into a sugar-free version.

Enjoy erythritol sensibly, and have confidence knowing the specific health benefits that back up its role as part of a healthy lifestyle.


References
  1. Shindou, Tatsuji, et al. “Determination of erythritol in fermented foods by high performance liquid chromatography.” Food hygiene and safety science. 29.6 (1988): 419-422.
  2. Shindou, Tatsuji, et al.. “Identification of erythritol by HPLC and GC-MS and quantitative measurement in pulps of various fruits.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Safety 37.6 (1989).
  3. Piccirillo, Clara. “How is erythritol made? Manufacture of a low-calorie sugar substitute.” Decoded Science (2014).
  4. Chaplin, Martin. “The use of enzymes in starch hydrolysis.” Enzyme Technology (2014).
  5. Munro, I. C., et al. “Erythritol: an interpretive summary of biochemical, metabolic, toxicological and clinical data.” Food and Chemical Toxicology. 36.12 (1998): 1139-1174.
  6. Storey, D., et al. “Gastrointestinal tolerance of erythritol and xylitol ingested in a liquid.” Nature News. Nature Publishing Group (2006).
  7. Gunners, Kris. “Erythritol – Like Sugar Without The Calories.” Authority Nutrition. (2016).
  8. Noda, K., K. Nakayama, and T. Oku. “Serum glucose and insulin levels and erythritol balance after oral administration of erythritol in healthy subjects.” European journal of clinical nutrition. U.S. National Library of Medicine (1994).
  9. Wong, Robert J., MD, MS. “Study Finds High Prevalence of Metabolic Syndrome in U.S. – For The Media – JAMA Network.” For The Media. The JAMA Network (2015).
  10. “CDC: Half of American Adults Have Periodontal Disease” Perio.Org. American Academy of Periodontology (2012).
  11. Kawanabe, J. “Noncariogenicity of erythritol as a substrate.” Caries Research. U.S. National Library of Medicine (1992).
  12. Honkala, S., et al.  “Effect of erythritol and xylitol on dental caries prevention in children.” Caries Research. U.S. National Library of Medicine (2014).
  13. Nelson, Nathan C. “The free radical theory of aging.”  Department of physics, Ohio state university (2017).
  14. “Antioxidants and cancer prevention.” National cancer institute (2014).
  15. Den Hartog, G.J., et al. “Erythritol is a sweet antioxidant.” Nutrition 26.4 (2010): 449-458.
  16. Tetzloff, W., et al. “Tolerance to subchronic, high-dose ingestion of erythritol in human volunteers.” Regulatory toxicology and pharmacology. 24.2 (1996):  286-295.
  17. Corliss, Julie. “Eating too much added sugar increases the risk of dying with heart disease.” Harvard health blog (2016).
  18. Adams, Peter O. “The impact of brief high-intensity exercise on blood glucose levels.”  Diabetes, metabolic syndrome and obesity: targets and therapy 6 (2013): 113-122.