If you’ve been trying to lose weight, chances are you may have heard about erythritol. But do you know what is erythritol? Erythritol is associated with a class of compounds known as sugar alcohols. It is a popular zero calorie sweetener, that is usually made from corn. It is a common ingredient in many low-sugar or sugar-free foods as it tastes like sugar but contains zero calories.
Though erythritol has its advantages, it also has some side effects. Diarrhea, headaches, and stomachache are some of the common side effects associated with erythritol.
So, is it worth having this artificial sweetener? Read on to know more about what is erythritol and the risks associated with it.
What is erythritol?
Erythritol is a sugar substitute that has the sweetness of sugar but contains zero calories. It is available in both granulated and powdered forms. It is actually sugar alcohol, which is naturally available in some fruits and vegetables.
Fruits like grapes, watermelon and pears and vegetables like mushrooms naturally contain erythritol.
However, the erythritol that is added to sugar-free foods and beverages is made from GMO cornstarch. So, it is a very highly processed food, with nothing natural about it.
If you observe the calories in table sugar, xylitol, and erythritol, then it is 4 calories, 2.4 calories, 0.24 calories per gram respectively.
History of erythritol
Erythritol was discovered in 1848 by John Stenhouse, a Scottish chemist. At the industrial levels, it is produced from glucose by fermentation with the yeast, Moniliella pollinis.
Erythritol has been used in Japan as a natural sweetener since the 1990s. Till date, it has been approved for use in 60 counties including US, Japan, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Turkey, Russia, China, India, Australia and New Zealand (1).
- Suggested read: Is Sucralose Bad for You? 6 Side effects of Splenda
How does it work?
Erythritol is quite different from the other sugar alcohols, as it contains fewer calories than sorbitol and xylitol. While sugar contains four calories per gram, and xylitol contains 2.4 calories per gram, erythritol contains only .24 calories per gram.
Our body cannot digest most sugar alcohols, so they pass through most of the digestive system unchanged until they reach the colon. Here it is fermented by the gut bacteria, and this leads to bloating and indigestion.
Erythritol is different from the rest of the sugar alcohols. Ninety percent of it gets absorbed in the small intestine, and then after it travels through the bloodstream, it is excreted in the urine unchanged (2).
Only 10 percent of erythritol reaches the colon, and the gut microbiota does not ferment erythritol (3).
Since erythritol travels through the body unchanged, it does not change the sugar and insulin levels in the blood.
Benefits of erythritol
1. May prevent tooth decay
Sugar can have a severe impact on our dental health. The harmful bacteria in our mouth use sugar for energy as it helps them grow, multiply and erode our teeth.
Erythritol, on the other hand, does not cause any tooth decay. Since oral bacteria can not metabolize it, it does not cause cavities.
During one study, 485 primary school children were given four erythritol, xylitol or sorbitol candies three times a day during school.
In the follow-up examinations, researchers found a lesser number of caries in the erythritol group. Time for the development of caries was also the longest in the erythritol group (4).
2. Does not spike blood sugar or insulin
Erythritol has a zero glycemic index (GI), and it does not affect blood sugar or insulin. This is the reason why erythritol is so popular with people on low carb diets.
During one trial, researchers tested pre-diabetic patients after two weeks of having rebaudioside A and erythritol as sweeteners. The study concluded that consumption of rebaudioside A and erythritol does not alter the glucose homeostasis in people with glucose intolerance (5).
During another study, five healthy male volunteers were given .3 grams per kg body weight of erythritol and tested for serum glucose and insulin levels.
The study concluded that erythritol did not increase serum levels of glucose or insulin. More than 90 percent of the erythritol was absorbed and excreted in the urine without degradation (6).
3. Does not cause diarrhea
Most sugar alcohols like sorbitol and xylitol ferment in the gut and cause bloating and diarrhea. Erythritol, on the other hand, does not cause diarrhea. Almost 90 percent of erythritol is absorbed in the small intestine and excreted unchanged in the urine.
During one lab study, erythritol turned out to be resistant to bacterial attack within 24 hours, unlike maltitol and lactulose which fermented and produced gas (7). The researchers believed the effects of erythritol would be similar in humans as well.
During one study 27 males and 28 females were given different doses of erythritol, xylitol, and lactitol to check the threshold for transitory diarrhea.
The researchers discovered that the dose at which erythritol causes diarrhea was much higher than xylitol and lactitol (8).
4. Safe for diabetics
Erythritol has little, if any, influence on blood sugar levels and insulin. Consumption of erythritol releases gut hormones that help slow down gastric emptying.
In patients with diabetes, having erythritol improves endothelial function, which may provide heart-healthy benefits (9).
The endothelium is a layer of cells that lines all the blood vessels and lymph vessels in the body. This lining gets affected by diabetes and can cause further complications.
According to a study, erythritol helps protect the endothelium from diabetic stress (10).
Side effects of erythritol
When consumed in doses larger than 50 grams, erythritol can have some side effects like nausea and stomach rumbling. These are some reasons why it may not be safe to consume this sugar substitute.
1. Made from genetically modified corn
Erythritol is derived from corn syrup made from genetically modified corn. According to the World Health Organization, genetically modified organisms (GMO) are foods whose genetic material has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally.
Many studies have linked GMO foods with problems like infertility, immune issues, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation and changes in major organs (11). So, it is better to avoid any food that contains GMO ingredients.
2. Often mixed with other sweeteners
Pure erythritol is not used very commonly as it is not as sweet as sugar. For this reason, it is often combined with artificial sweeteners like aspartame and acesulfame.
Aspartame is linked with many health consequences like anxiety, depression, memory loss, weight gain and muscle fatigue. This combination sweetener becomes quite lethal for health.
Sometimes it is not clear whether the erythritol you’re using is pure or not. So, do your research before using products that contain erythritol.
3. Can cause allergies
Erythritol can cause allergic skin reactions like hives in some people. According to one study published in 2000, a 24-year-old developed severe wheals after drinking a glass of canned milk tea.
When researchers examined the cause of her skin reaction, they found that her drink contained erythritol (12).
If you are allergic to artificial sweeteners, check the ingredients of your beverage before you consume it.
4. May lead to gastrointestinal problems
Erythritol can lead to digestive issues, mainly when consumed in large amounts. According to a study on 64 healthy adult volunteers, when you take more than 50 grams of erythritol in a single dose, it can lead to nausea and stomach rumbling (13).
These side effects of erythritol are common in children.
A pediatric study was done on children aged 4 to 6, to check the GI tolerability of erythritol in a single drinking occasion. The researchers found that there is a safety concern concerning GI tolerability for the use of erythritol in beverages at a maximum use level of 2.5 percent for non-sweetening purposes (14).
5. May cause weight gain
When we eat regular sugar, it gets metabolized in the body, and this results in raised levels of satiety hormones. These hormones send a signal to the brain that you’ve had enough to eat.
The problem with erythritol is that it is not metabolized by the body at all. Erythritol does not raise satiety hormones, and our brain does not register if any fuel has been put in the body.
So, your body ends up feeling hungry, and you end up eating more and more. This overeating then leads to weight gain.
6. Not advisable for people with gastric troubles
While people can tolerate erythritol better than many other sugar alcohols, it is definitely not for people with gastric issues.
For those people who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth ( SIBO) erythritol is a definite no-no.
Erythritol and other sugar alcohols are known as polyols. Polyols can be troublesome for people with IBS and SIBO.
7. Can be used as an insecticide
According to the researchers at Drexel University erythritol can be used as an insecticide. Flies are drawn to its sweet flavor, even when other food is available.
Erythritol has a potent insecticidal activity in flies (15).
This, however, does lead to the question of whether you should use such a product in your food.
Though erythritol has some benefits, it also has some severe side effects. It is wiser to limit your consumption of refined sugar and artificial sugar substitutes. Opt for natural sweeteners like honey and monk fruit.
1. Raw honey
This thick golden liquid produced by honey bees lowers bad cholesterol and increases good cholesterol. Raw honey retains its health benefits and nutritional value, unlike the processed honey. You can also go for manuka honey.
Pure stevia leaf extract without any additives is one of the best options for sweeteners. The stevia plant extract has been used for over 1500 years by the people of Brazil and Paraguay.
3. Monk fruit
Monk fruit has been used as a sweetener for many years. It is almost 400 times sweeter than sugarcane.
Final thoughts on what is erythritol
By now you must have got an idea what is erythritol. Erythritol has very calories compared to sugar and other sugar alcohol compounds. At the same time, it is 70% more sweet than the same amount of sugar.
It can be beneficial for health in some ways. It prevents cavities, does not spike blood sugar or insulin and is safe for people with diabetes. However, it also has a lot of side effects. It is made from GMO foods and can cause allergies, gastric troubles and can lead to weight gain.
Opt for a natural sugar substitute like honey to improve your health.