Food manufacturers are continually coming up with new low-calorie and sugar-free products to entice consumers. And many of these products contain potentially harmful artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, ACE K, and saccharin. But, sugar alcohols, including erythritol, are promoted as being a safe alternative to sugar. Are they really?
Erythritol was discovered over 150 years ago, and it belongs to the same family of other popular sugar alcohols including xylitol, sorbitol, and others. It is found in everyday products, including gum, low-calorie or low-glycemic protein bars, toothpaste, and chewable vitamins.
But is erythritol safe?
Frankly, it depends on who you ask. In many keto circles, erythritol’s use is supported as its glycemic index (GI) is 0. But many of these same keto circles also recommend the use of aspartame, even with its frightening side effects, because its GI is also 0.
The best advice is to consider all of the facts and decide what is best for you.
What Is Erythritol?
Erythritol and other sugar alcohols are plant-based sweeteners that are low in calories. They have been on the market in the United States for decades and appear in many commonly used products. Glucitol, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, glycerol, lactitol, and xylitol round out the sugar alcohol category.
It is true that sugar alcohols are lower in calories than table sugar is, but they are not calorie free. The reason they are considered low calorie is the fact that the human body cannot digest or metabolize sugar alcohols after they have been consumed.
Erythritol is lower in calories than the other sugar alcohols, and it is slightly different in its makeup. It is created through the fermentation of the glucose found in cornstarch or wheat starch. This makes it highly indigestible. In fact, once erythritol enters the body, an estimated 90% moves to the bloodstream for excretion in the urine.
What Does Erythritol Taste Like?
Erythritol is about 70% as sweet as table sugar, and it is recognized for its mild flavor and somewhat cooling essence. But, unlike many other low-calorie sweeteners on the market, erythritol doesn’t have a metallic or another off-putting aftertaste. However, erythritol is often combined with other low-calorie and zero-calorie sweeteners like aspartame and stevia that are known for leaving a less-than-pleasing taste in the mouth.
Erythritol is heat stable and suitable for baking, and as such makes an appearance in several common foods, beverages, and household products.
9 Erythritol Side Effects
Most side effects of erythritol are considered either mild or moderate, and the majority are related to digestive distress. This is because erythritol isn’t metabolized in the body, and it can cause problems once it reaches the colon and begins to ferment.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the side effects of erythritol seem to be more commonly observed in children than in adults and can include:
- A laxative effect
- Watery feces
- Borborygmi (growling tummy noises)
Potential Erythritol Dangers
While most side effects are mild, there are inherent dangers of erythritol that need to be addressed.
- Erythritol can be made from GMO corn or wheat.
- Sugar alcohols are a form of carbohydrates, and as such, they may not be advisable for diabetics. In fact, they can cause blood sugar levels to rise.
- Since erythritol isn’t as sweet as other natural or artificial sweeteners, it is often combined with less healthy sweeteners. When erythritol is partnered with aspartame, the product should be avoided, particularly by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.
- If you are on a low FODMAP diet, it is essential to understand that sugar alcohols are not appropriate. Instead, when looking for a low FODMAP natural sweetener, choose brown sugar, coconut sugar, beet sugar, rice malt syrup, or maple syrup.
- For individuals with digestive diseases like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, diverticulosis, diverticulitis, or acid reflux, sugar alcohols, including erythritol, should be avoided. The way they act within the digestive tract may worsen the symptoms of your gastrointestinal disease.
- Low-calorie and sugar-free drinks are shown to stimulate your appetite and lead to weight gain. This is evidenced by an observational study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The researchers of this study also found that low-calorie and sugar-free drinks can increase your risk for type 2 diabetes.
- If you are a pet owner, please note that sugar alcohols, including erythritol, are extremely toxic to dogs. Be very aware of any products in your home that contain these low-calorie sweeteners and keep them out of reach. PETMD warns pet owners of the following products with sugar alcohols:
- Nicotine gum
- Mass-produced baked goods like cookies and cupcakes
- Sugar-free catsup
- Sugar-free peanut butter
- Deodorants and antiperspirants
- Researchers from Drexel University are applying for a patent to use erythritol as an insecticide. In initial studies, erythritol was found to kill fruit flies, and they are now looking into whether or not it can also kill cockroaches, bed bugs, ants, and termites.
9 Natural Sugar Alternatives
- Apple juice: Sweet with a subtle flavor, apple juice is perfect for smoothies, salad dressings, and marinades. To increase the health benefits, select unfiltered apple juice.
- Coconut sugar: This natural sweetener is extracted from the blossoms of the coconut palm tree. The sap is distilled and then dehydrated. Coconut sugar is available both as white sugar and brown sugar. Both varieties dissolve well in drinks and can be used to replace table sugar in most recipes.
- Grape juice: Dark purple grape juice is packed with healthy polyphenols and an ultra sweet flavor. A little grape juice goes a long way. Use grape juice sparingly if you are trying to reduce your sugar intake as it does contain fructose.
- Honey: If you are going to use honey, remember, raw is best. Raw honey is associated with many health benefits, and it is even linked to lower weight gain. Researchers from the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences at San Diego State University have found that replacing white sugar with honey promotes lower triglyceride levels.
- Lucuma powder: The South American lucuma fruit brings one the latest low-calorie sweeteners to the market—lucuma powder. It has a mild flavor, it is low-glycemic, and it contains valuable minerals including potassium. Lucuma powder is perfect for sweetening smoothies and baked goods, and sprinkling on cereals or yogurt.
- Maple syrup: Because of its rich flavor and health benefits, maple syrup is a staple on many breakfast tables. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes four classifications of maple syrup based on taste and color. If you are using maple syrup as a sugar alternative, you might prefer one of the grades with a more delicate flavor, and save the robustly flavored maple syrup for pancakes and waffles.
- Molasses: A crucial ingredient in Christmas time-favorite gingerbread cookies, molasses has been used for generations as a healthy sweetener. Molasses has a robust flavor and is considered a moderate-glycemic sweetener. The big difference with this sugar alternative is that molasses is a good source of vitamins and minerals.
- Monk fruit: Otherwise known as Buddha fruit, monk fruit has been harvested for hundreds of years in the southern mountains of China. It is believed that monk fruit got its name from the Buddhist monks who were the first to cultivate it. As a sweetener, monk fruit is available in powders and liquids. It is anywhere between 200 times and 300 times sweeter than table sugar, so a little goes a long way.
- Pure stevia leaf extract: Stevia comes from South America where it has been used for over a century as a sweetener and a medicinal. Several types of stevia are available in the United States. It is vital to purchase pure stevia leaf extract only, as many blends contain other sweeteners including erythritol.
Head-to-head, in the erythritol vs. stevia debate, both are recognized by the FDA as “generally recognized as safe,” and they are both heat stable, making them acceptable for baking. However, they each come with some health warnings and precautions. The FDA has determined an acceptable daily intake for stevia of 5 1/2 teaspoons a day or 22 drops. A recent clinical study found that 1 gram per kilogram of body weight a day is a generally “well tolerated” amount of erythritol for most adults.
We’ll leave your choice of sugar alternative to you!