This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
Erythritol is a natural sweetener gaining popularity among those who want to limit their sugar intake. Learn more about Erythritol in our latest post.
Erythritol is a naturally occurring artificial sweetener found in a variety of low-sugar or sugar-free foods. The sweetener is a member of the polyols family, which are sugar alcohols. Erythritol is formed via hydrolysis, a chemical process that happens when a water molecule is added to a substance. This action occurs primarily in the ketone group of various carbohydrates.
Erythritol was first discovered in 1848 by John Stenhouse, a Scottish chemist. In 1950, it was found in blackstrap molasses that was fermented yeast. More recently, it was used in Japan as sugar alcohol in the 1990s. In 2001, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of Erythritol as a food additive. Today, it is now added to a wide variety of foods and medicines.
Erythritol is similar in sweetness to table sugar, but unlike sugar, it does not contain any carbohydrates or calories. It has no effect on metabolism and does not impact the body or its functions: the sweetener is rapidly absorbed into the small intestine when consumed, with 90% of the sweetener leaving the body via urine. The other 10% enters the colon and remains there until it is removed from the body.
Small amounts of erythritol can be found in a few fruits, such as grapes, pears, and watermelon. Some fermented foods (beer, wine, cheese, and sake) contain trace amounts of erythritol, while mushrooms have small amounts of the sweetener.
Also, erythritol is often added to other artificial sweeteners to improve the taste of various foods, snacks, and products. It is also used in some baked products because it retains moisture and does not dry them out. Examples of foods that contain added erythritol include the following:
- Sports drinks/energy drinks
- Packaged cakes, cookies, and desserts containing grains
- Dairy-based desserts (puddings, ice cream, assorted frozen desserts)
- Diet drinks, diet sodas, and/or zero-calorie drinks
- Sugar-free chewing gums
- Assorted chocolate products
- Dessert frostings
- Pharmaceutical products
o Sugar-free throat lozenges
o Chewable vitamins and tablets
Like erythritol, stevia is a zero-calorie alternative to sugar and contains no carbs. Both are formed naturally and often used as sugar substitutes. Stevia is 100-200 times sweeter than sugar, while erythritol has about 70% of sugar’s sweetness. For some, stevia may have a bitter taste, while erythritol has more of a cooling sensation in the mouth with no lingering aftertaste. Some stevia users experience headaches or allergies when consuming the sweetener.
In addition to not having any calories or carbs, erythritol is believed to offer the following benefits:
- Prevents Tooth Decay. Unlike sugar, which can cause tooth decay, erythritol can’t be metabolized by oral bacteria. As a result, it may help diminish Streptococcus’s growth, a bacteria that can cause cavities.
- Lower Cause of Diarrhea and Upset Stomach. Thanks to its low glycemic index, erythritol is easily absorbed by the body. This leads to significantly fewer gut issues such as gas and diarrhea that are often seen in other sweeteners.
- Anti-Diabetic Properties. Erythritol does not increase insulin or glucose levels in the body. On the other hand, sugar can raise blood sugar levels and cause a spike in insulin levels. Eating large amounts of sugar is believed to increase a person’s risk of having diabetes.
Even though erythritol is considered safe by the FDA and has no effect on metabolism or blood sugar, problems may arise if the sweetener is consumed in excess. Here are the top potential risks and side effects of excessive erythritol consumption:
- Bloating. Since the intestinal tract only partially absorbs erythritol, bloating can occur if excessive amounts of the sweetener are consumed. Common symptoms of bloating include feeling swollen, stuffed, or filled with gas, often after eating a meal.
- Commonly Used with Artificial Sweeteners. Erythritol is often added to other sweeteners because it’s not as sweet as sugar. To decrease the risk of allergic reactions or other health issues, it’s important to know what artificial sweeteners are being used with erythritol. For example, it might be mixed with aspartame, but this sweetener has several potential side effects, such as weight gain, fatigue, anxiety, depression, short-term memory loss, and other reactions. When erythritol is combined with fructose, the risk of diarrhea increases as well.
- Majority Used contain GMOs. The most common erythritol sources are fermented foods and fruits, but some varieties are also made from GMO cornstarch. Genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) have had their genetic material altered using genetic engineering methods and techniques. Due to the unknown risks of consuming GMO foods over the long term, many opt to choose natural sources of erythritol instead.
- Not Safe For Pets. Erythritol and other sugar alcohols such as those found in gum and candy should not be given to pets. They can cause liver failure, low blood sugar, seizures, and other severe reactions in dogs. Most symptoms of poisoning occur within 15 minutes of consuming erythritol. Immediate medical attention is required if pets consume erythritol.
Erythritol is a popular replacement for sugar and is used in various foods, drinks, desserts, and medicines. Many believe it is better for the diet and overall health than traditional table sugar and other sweeteners. Unlike other artificial sweeteners, erythritol doesn’t have a bitter aftertaste and has several health benefits. For example, while sugar can cause insulin levels to spike, erythritol will not raise blood sugar levels, making it a popular sweetener among people with diabetes. It also helps decrease the risk of tooth decay as well as bloating.
While the sweetener has many benefits, moderation is key. Consuming too much erythritol or mixing it with other sweeteners could cause several side effects, including diarrhea and upset stomach. When choosing to add erythritol to a diet, it’s important to know if other sugars are being added and to avoid using the GMO varieties of the sweetener.
Medical Disclaimer: This article is based upon the opinions of Dr. Daniel Pompa. The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information from the research and experience of Dr. Pompa and his associates. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD for accuracy of the information provided, but Dr. Pompa encourages you to make your own health care decisions based upon your research and in partnership with a qualified health care professional.