Like sugar, but without the calories? The low-calorie sweetener erythritol seems too good to be true. It has no unwanted side effects and tastes almost exactly like sugar - just without the calories. Basically, erythritol has all the benefits of sugar without any of the drawbacks of sugar, even though some publications in the media question the benefits of erythritol.
This article, based on scientific research, looks at the benefits and possible side effects of erythritol.
What is erythritol?
Erythritol belongs to a class of compounds called sugar alcohols. Food producers use many different sugar alcohols. These include xylithol, sorbitol and maltitol. Most of these serve as low-calorie sweeteners in sugar-free or low-sugar foods.
Most sugar alcohols are also found in small amounts in nature - especially in fruits and vegetables. The way in which these molecules are structured gives them the ability to stimulate the sweet receptors on our tongue.
Erythritol appears to be significantly different from other sugar alcohols. This starts with the fact that erythritol contains significantly fewer calories:
- Table sugar: 4 kcal per gram
- Xylitol: 2.4 kcal per gram
- Erythritol: 0.24 kcal per gram
With only about 6% of the calories of sugar, erythritol has about 70% of the sweetening power of sugar. In large-scale production, erythritol is created when a certain type of yeast ferments glucose from corn or wheat starch.
Summary: Erythritol is a sugar alcohol used as a low-calorie sweetener. Erythritol provides about 6% of the calories found in the same amount of sugar.
Is erythritol safe and harmless?
All in all, erythritol appears to be very safe. Numerous studies have been conducted with animals to investigate toxicity and metabolic effects. Despite long-term feeding of large amounts of erythritol, no serious side effects were observed (1, 2).
However, most sugar alcohols have one major drawback - they can cause digestive problems. Due to their chemical structure, your body cannot digest these sugar alcohols and they pass through the digestive tract almost unchanged until they reach your intestines. In the intestine, they are then fermented by resident intestinal bacteria, producing gases.
Accordingly, consumption of large amounts of sugar alcohols can cause bloating and indigestion. Sugar alcohols belong to a category of dietary fibers known as FODMAPs.
However, erythritol differs from other sugar alcohols in that most of the erythritol consumed is absorbed into the bloodstream before it reaches the intestine (3). Hereafter, it circulates in the bloodstream for some time until it is finally excreted unchanged in the urine (4).
Even though erythritol does not have any serious side effects, consuming large amounts can cause digestive problems in some circumstances, as will be explained in more detail in the next section.
Summary: Most of the erythritol you eat is absorbed into the bloodstream and excreted in the urine. Erythritol appears to have an excellent safety profile.
Erythritol side effects
About 90% of the erythritol you eat is absorbed into the bloodstream, while the remaining 10% enters the intestine undigested. Unlike most other sugar alcohols, erythritol appears to be resistant to fermentation by intestinal bacteria (4). Studies in which up to 1 gram of erythritol per kilogram of body weight was consumed indicate that this sugar alcohol is well tolerated (5, 6). However, a study in which 50 grams of erythritol were consumed at one time showed that this increased the risk of nausea and stomach rumbling (7). As long as you do not consume large amounts of erythritol at one time, it is unlikely to cause digestive problems. However, it should be noted that erythritol sensitivity can vary from person to person.
Summary: Approximately 10% of erythritol consumed is not absorbed into the bloodstream and ends up in the intestines. For this reason, high doses of erythritol can cause digestive problems.
Erythritol does not increase blood sugar and insulin levels
Humans do not have the enzymes needed to break down erythritol. It is absorbed into the bloodstream and excreted unchanged in the urine. When healthy people are given erythritol, no changes in blood sugar levels or insulin levels can be observed. There are also no effects on cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels or other biomarkers (8).
For this reason, erythritol seems to be an excellent alternative to sugar for people suffering from diabetes or other problems related to metabolic syndrome.
Summary: Erythritol does not increase blood sugar levels. This makes erythritol a perfect sugar substitute for people suffering from diabetes.
Erythritol could reduce the risk of heart disease
Studies conducted in diabetic rats show that erythritol acts as an antioxidant and may reduce damage to blood vessels caused by high blood glucose levels (9).
Another study conducted with 24 adults suffering from type 2 diabetes who consumed 36 grams of erythritol daily for one month showed an improvement in blood vessel function, which could potentially reduce the risk of heart disease (10). Erythritol is not free of controversy, however. One study linked high erythritol blood levels to an increase in body fat in adults (11).
Summary: Further studies are needed before definite conclusions can be made about the relevance of these studies. Erythritol acts as an antioxidant and could improve blood vessel function in people suffering from type 2 diabetes. These benefits could potentially reduce the risk of heart disease, although further studies are needed in this regard.
All in all, erythritol seems to be an excellent sweetener.
- It contains almost no calories.
- It has 70% of the sweetening power of sugar.
- It does not increase blood sugar or insulin levels
- Human studies show very few side effects, which mainly include minor digestive problems in some people.
- Studies with animals fed massive amounts of erythritol over an extended period of time showed no harmful side effects.
Health-conscious people often use stevia or honey to sweeten their food. However, honey provides calories and contains fructose and many people do not like the aftertaste of stevia. Erythritol, seems to provide the best of both worlds.