Is Erythritol the healthiest sugar? A look at the science behind sweetness.

erythritol

Erythritol Facts 

Introduction 

As the modern diet evolves, many health-conscious consumers have made it a priority to replace sugar and artificial sweeteners with natural options that are lower in calories and safer to consume. Erythritol is one such option, and is gaining popularity in the food and beverage industry as a substitute that tastes as sweet as sugar. 

Erythritol belongs to the family of natural sweeteners known as sugar alcohols or ‘polyols’, and are found in many fruits and vegetables. These hybrid compounds have a unique chemical structure that bears resemblance to both a sugar molecule and an alcohol molecule. It is useful to note that sugar alcohols do not contain ethanol, and therefore are a safe option for those who choose not to consume alcoholic beverages. The structural similarity to that of regular sugar allows for sugar alcohols to bind to the sweet taste receptors located on the tongue, resulting in the sensation of sweetness. Differences lie in the digestibility of each substance; whereas sugar is broken down by enzymes in the human body into available units of energy, sugar alcohols remain resistant to digestion. As such, they are not efficiently metabolized and result in a reduced caloric absorption.

Recent technical advances have allowed for erythritol to be used as a bulk sugar alternative. While similar sugar alcohols, such as xylitol, sorbitol, and maltitol have had a long history of use as a low-calorie sweetener, they have also been linked to digestive issues – namely, gas and bloating. This is in large part due to their exceptional inability to be digested. As these sugar alcohols pass through the digestive system they remain unaltered until they reach the colon, at which point gut bacteria act on the sugar alcohols and fermentation occurs. Gas is created as a byproduct of this process and causes bloating and discomfort. Additionally, sugar alcohols may have a laxative effect on some consumers. 

The chemical structure of Erythritol is very distinct from sugars.
The chemical structure of Erythritol is very distinct from sugars like Glucose.

Evaluations of erythritol have revealed that it possesses some unique properties that set it apart from other commonly used sugar alcohols – specifically, much of it doesn’t remain in the digestive tract. Once consumed, 90% of ingested erythritol is absorbed into the bloodstream through the small intestine. Rather than continuing to the colon through the digestive tract, it circulates in the blood unaltered before being excreted as urine. The approximate 10% of erythritol that does continue to the colon is not fermented by the resident bacteria, making it less problematic than other sugar alcohols. 

Perhaps most noteworthy is erythritol’s miniscule calorie content. Compared to xylitol, which boasts 2.4 calories/gram, one gram of erythritol provides 0.24 calories, giving it potential as a frontrunning aid to weight loss. Accordingly, erythritol has found a use in sugar-free and diabetic-friendly food products. Supplementary comparative data can be viewed in the following chart. 

Sweetener Calories/gram Sweetness as compared to Sucrose (%)Glycemic Index 
Commercially Sourced From

Harmful Impact  
Sugar (Sucrose)4100%65.0Sugarcane, sugar beets, maple sap, dates, honeySevere negative health impacts 
Xylitol 2.4100%13.0GMO corn, birch wood Digestive upset and highly toxic to dogs
Erythritol 0.2470% – 80%0.0GMO corn Potential digestive upset
Sorbitol 2.650% – 70%9.0GMO cornDigestive upset 
Malitol 2.175%35.0GMO corn Digestive upset
Before taking substances like Erythritol you should understand genetic predispositions that affect your metabolism. Nebula Genomics offers affordable Whole Genome Sequencing that decodes 100% of your DNA. Click here to learn more!

Edited by Christina Swords, Ph.D.

Erythritol Claims

By replacing traditional sugar with erythritol, sweet foods and beverages are substantially lower in calories, and are said to be healthier to consume. In this, erythritol is purported to be a management tool for maintaining a healthy body weight and in reducing levels of sugar-related illnesses and diseases. These include: 

Obesity, heart disease, acne, type 2 diabetes, cancer, depression, aging skin, cellular aging, gout, accelerated cognitive decline, chronic inflammation, raised blood pressure, tooth decay and poor oral health, and complications of the liver and kidneys.

Erythritol is especially noted as beneficial to those managing diabetes, as its consumption does not alter blood sugar and insulin levels in the human body. For diabetics it is considered a safe and natural sweetener with a low glycemic index. Additionally, erythritol is alleged to reduce dental decay and has been incorporated as a common ingredient in chewing gum. Unlike regular sugar, which bacteria breaks down into acids that erode tooth enamel and cause cavities, erythritol inhibits the growth of some bacteria and therefore limits the production of destructive acids. 

Erythritol is claimed to be a healthy sweetener in low carb and low sugar diets, and is included in diet trends such as the ketogenic diet and the low FODMAP diet. Regardless, some people have shown sensitivities to erythritol, exhibiting symptoms such as cramping, nausea, bloating, diarrhea and headaches. 

The Science

A considerable amount of research has thus far confirmed that erythritol is a tolerable natural sweetener. A 1996 study investigating the potential toxicity and carcinogenicity of routine feedings of erythritol to rats revealed a safe toxicological profile and showed no evidence of carcinogenic properties. An additional study that investigated the possible effects of long-term, high doses of erythritol on rats, dogs and humans similarly found no evidence of toxicity. 

A 1994 study confirmed that erythritol consumption does not influence levels of blood sugar or insulin in the body, confirming it as a safe option for diabetics to consume. 

Experiments aimed at contrasting various sugar alcohols seem to uniformly report that erythritol is the superior polyol. A double-blind human study comparing the gastrointestinal response to various high levels of xylitol or erythritol reported erythritol to be a significantly more gentle substance when consumed. Specifically, while a single 50g dose of erythritol elicited reports of nausea and stomach rumbling, a single 50g dose of xylitol resulted in high levels of nausea, stomach rumbling, bloating, colic, and diarrhea. A similar comparison study found erythritol to have the highest laxative threshold, and concluded that erythritol doses of 1g/kg of body weight tend to be very well tolerated. 

In contrast, more recent studies have discovered potential negative side effects of erythritol consumption. A  2011 study investigating the impacts of erythritol consumption alongside dietary fructose consumption found this combination to increase carbohydrate malabsorption and produce gastrointestinal distresses such as watery stools. These findings indicate that erythritol may be an irritant to some, and particularly may be disadvantageous to those with IBS or IBD. Similarly, a recent 2017 study made an association between erythritol consumption and weight gain. While further evidence is needed to substantiate this association, it may reduce the validity of erythritol’s purported weight loss effects, which are not scientifically proven. 

Interestingly, evidence has recently shown a potential use for erythritol as an insecticide and herbicide

The Bottom Line

Erythritol has been accepted as a safe and calorically low alternative to traditional sugar, especially for those with diabetes. If the goal is a combination of consuming sweet prepared foods, minimizing caloric intake, and reducing the risk of digestive issues commonly associated with sugar alcohols, then erythritol checks all the boxes. 

However, consumers should beware that many of its purported health claims regarding weight loss are debatable, having never been definitively proven nor disproven. Though consumption of large amounts has not been fatal, some people exhibit digestive sensitivities to it, and the potential long term health effects of routine erythritol consumption are unknown. Further clinical studies are required to provide concrete information about erythritol’s interactions with the human body. This is especially true of those with IBS and IBD, as erythritol may produce more severe gastrointestinal reactions in those with pre-existing digestive disorders. 

When addressing the widespread need for erythritol as a sugar replacement, it is invaluable to consider the underlying issue at hand – a lack of moderation. Eating an excessive amount of sugar-infused foods is detrimentally unhealthy and indicates a nutritional imbalance. It is not unreasonable to then infer that consuming a high volume of sugar alternatives implies a focus that is not health-oriented but rather highlights a system of nutritional bartering that validates a high consumption of processed and nutritionally-empty, sweet food. Recognizing sweetness as a minor dietary preference, monitoring daily consumption of sugar and erythritol, addressing any issues that may cause one to overindulge, and learning to understand how your individual body responds to different foods are likely more effective at curating a profile of overall health. 

Genetic testing may be able to help you find the right diet.

A supplementary approach that one may find useful in assessing personal weight loss and health-related goals is to examine genetic predispositions to illnesses that are bolstered by high-sugar intake, and through developing a deeper understanding of how your individual body processes foods. This can lead to biologically appropriate meal planning and a more results-oriented approach. 

As genetic counselling becomes an accessible alternative to fad diets, personalized and genetically-based health and wellness optimization plans are on the rise. Companies like GenoPalate, NutriSystem and Fitness Genes have gained notoriety through testing a small selection of a person’s genome and making appropriate dietary or fitness recommendations. For those looking for whole-genome sequencing that evaluates your entire DNA, Nebula Genomics 30x Whole Genome Sequencing can assist with this.

Nebula Genomics 

Navigating options to determine the best diet plan for you can be a fairly momentous task to take on, particularly for those with intolerances and sensitivities. While trial and error is often necessary to fully develop an ideal health plan, whole genome sequencing can be an extremely useful tool in streamlining the process. At Nebula Genomics, our goal is to offer affordable and state of the art whole genome sequencing. This complete test evaluates 100% of a person’s DNA, and has proven invaluable in understanding individual genetic blueprint. For example, the results of this testing can provide insight on the efficacy of your own sugar digestion, which may prompt you to experiment with alternative sweeteners more suited for your body. Additionally, complete genetic testing can illuminate sensitivities to edible compounds, poor mental health predispositions and what your body needs to behave optimally. 

Nebula Genomics stands apart from similar genetic sequencing companies. We offer a secure and private service that prioritizes clients and places individuals in control of their data and who they share it with. Our Whole Genome Sequencing data is of the highest quality and can be used by physicians and genetic counselors. We provide weekly updates with topical scientific news and equip clients with a consistently updated scientific library that helps to comprehend your genetic code. Additionally, we supply several DNA exploration tools and leading-edge ancestry analysis that remove unnecessary confusion and allow you to fully comprehend your data.