Erythritol: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly with This Common Sweetener
Erythritol is one of the most prominent natural zero calorie sweeteners that have become so popular, and seemingly less problematic than the controversial aspartame. Instead, erythritol is a natural sugar alcohol like xylitol that I’ve spoken about before in my article titled “The 5 Worst Artificial Sweeteners.”
Many people choose erythritol because it can decrease the amount of sugar and calories in what they’re consuming. You’ll commonly find it as an ingredient in low-sugar, sugar-free and even carb-free foods, but there are some very concerning and common erythritol side effects — even when it’s used in low amounts, erythritol consumption can cause diarrhea, stomachache and headache.
The reason why it doesn’t provide calories or sugar to its consumer is because the body actually can’t break it down! That’s right — even though erythritol travels through your body, it doesn’t get metabolized. (1)
Is erythritol a safe and smart natural sweetener substitute for sugar?
If it’s made from GMO cornstarch, then absolutely not. I definitely don’t recommend it, especially when there are healthier, safer options readily available. If you’re talking about non-GMO erythritol, then it can be a better choice than some other artificial sweeteners, but I still think there are better options out there.
Erythritol is rapidly absorbed in the small intestine, but it’s poorly metabolized, has absolutely no known functions in the human body and is excreted through the urine unchanged. As we’ve seen before, just because a sweetener doesn’t have calories and doesn’t appear to affect blood sugar, it does not mean that it’s good for your health.
What Is Erythritol?
If you’re a label reader (and I hope you are!), you may have noticed alternative sweeteners like sucralose (Splenda®) and natural zero calorie sweetener erythritol becoming more and more prominent in ingredient lists lately, especially in energy and sports drinks and chocolate bars. You’re probably thinking to yourself, what is erythritol?
It naturally occurs in some fruits and fermented foods, but the variety being added to food and beverages today is typically man-made from GMO cornstarch, resulting in an ultra-processed food — very far from a natural sweetening agent. It’s one of those “invisible GMO ingredients.” It’s also likely to be an insecticide in the near future since researchers have found that the main component of Truvia®, erythritol has proven potent insecticidal activity. (2)
Erythritol is a four-carbon sugar alcohol or polyol that contains about 60 percent to 80 percent of the sweetness of table sugar. Sugar alcohol has nothing to do with cocktails, though since it does not contain ethanol (aka alcohol) like alcoholic beverages. Other sugar alcohols include sorbitol/glucitol, lactitol, isomalt, maltitol, mannitol, glycerol/glycerin and xylitol. Fruits like watermelon, pear and grapes naturally have minor amounts of erythritol, as do mushrooms and fermented foods like cheese, wine, beer and sake. (3)
Erythritol was first discovered in 1848 by a Scottish chemist named John Stenhouse. Japan has been using erythritol since the early 1990s in candies, jellies, jams, chocolate (including the common chocolate bar), yogurt, beverages and as a natural sugar substitute. It’s gained popularity in the United States more recently. As of 1997, it has the status of generally recognized as safe from the FDA, which honestly really doesn’t tell you much about how safe it is. The food industry and consumers love it because it can have up to 80 percent of the sweetness of sugar, but it’s noncaloric and does not raise blood sugar levels.
Meanwhile, pro-industry scientists claim that it might even provide antioxidants to whoever ingests it. In a diabetic rat, erythritol seems to act as an antioxidant (to fight free radicals) and potentially offered protection again hyperglycemia-induced vascular damage. (4)
Erythritol is now commonly added to many packaged food, snack and drink items (zero calorie sodas, for example) as well as sugar-free gums, mints and even some medications. It’s also available by itself as a granulated or powdered natural zero calorie sweetener, like Zsweet and Swerve. And because erythritol is not hygroscopic (does not absorb moisture from the air), it’s popular in certain baked products because it doesn’t dry them out.
Erythritol does occur naturally in some fruits and fermented foods. However, the problem is that the grand majority of erythritol used in products today is man-made by taking glucose (most commonly from GMO cornstarch) and fermenting it with a yeast called Moniliella pollinis.
7 Reasons to Not Consume Erythritol
The World Health Organization defines genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as “foods derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism.” (5) Much of the erythritol used in foods and beverages today is derived from cornstarch from genetically modified corn.
Animal studies have linked consumption of GMOs with infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. (6)
2. Commonly Combined with Artificial Sweeteners
Erythritol is not as sweet as sugar on its own so it’s often combined in foods and beverages with other questionable sweeteners, usually ones that are artificial. When combined with artificial sweeteners like aspartame, the erythritol-laden product becomes even more lethal to your health. Side effects of aspartame include anxiety, depression, short-term memory loss, fibromyalgia, weight gain, fatigue, brain tumors and more.
Since products containing erythritol typically also contain artificial sweeteners like aspartame, the side effects of that particular food or beverage become even more likely as well as dangerous.
3. Gastrointestinal Problems and Headache
Sugar alcohols like erythritol are well-known to cause digestive issues. Some of the most common erythritol side effects in small amounts, and especially in large amounts, are undesirable gastrointestinal side effects. These GI side effects are especially common in children. (7)
Unfortunately, the gastrointestinal issues don’t necessarily stop at some rumbling in your stomach. Diarrhea is a well-known common erythritol side effect. Especially when consumed in excess, unabsorbed erythritol can attract water from the intestinal wall and cause diarrhea. The likelihood of diarrhea appears to be even more likely when erythritol is consumed along with fructose. (8) Diarrhea might sound harmless, but it can lead to dehydration and malnutrition.
Many people report upset stomach and diarrhea after consuming normal amounts of erythritol in food or beverages. If consumption is high (50 grams or more per day) then digestive upset, including gas, cramping, bloating, stomachache and diarrhea, becomes even more likely. One study specifically showed that the intake of 50 grams of erythritol causes stomach rumbling and nausea. (9)
In 2012, a pediatric study looked at the GI tolerability of erythritol. The aim was to determine the maximum dose level of erythritol that’s well-tolerated by young children (4–6 years old) in a single drinking occasion. The researchers concluded that there is “a safety concern with respect to GI tolerability for the use of erythritol in beverages at a maximum use level of 2.5% for non-sweetening purposes.” (10)
Headaches are another common but less studied side effect.
4. Could Lead to Overeating
One of the ongoing problems with noncaloric artificial sweeteners is that they don’t get processed by your body the way regular sugar gets processed. When you eat foods containing table sugar and healthier natural sweeteners, your body knows exactly what to do with them. The sugar gets metabolized, and hormones are released to decrease your appetite.
The problem with erythritol is that it’s a sugar alcohol that basically just goes right through your body. It does not metabolized, and therefore, your body may not be getting calories or sugar. It’s also not registering that any fuel got put into your body at all. This is why you can end up still feeling hungry after you consume products with alternative and fake man-made sugars. The body is left feeling unfilled, and you still want to eat or drink something else. This is a slippery slope that can lead to overeating and weight gain. Weight gain has been seen when sugar alcohols like erythritol are overeaten. (11)
5. Terrible for SIBO and IBS Sufferers
SIBO is a more prevalent digestive disorder than previously believed, and it occurs in many people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other underlying conditions. (12) SIBO is the acronym for “small intestinal bacterial overgrowth,” defined as excessive bacteria in the small intestine. While bacteria naturally occurs throughout the digestive tract, in a healthy system, the small intestine is supposed to have relatively low levels of bacteria. When people suffer from SIBO or IBS, what they put into their bodies on a daily basis can truly spell the difference between healing or increased distress.
Polyols like erythritol top the list for ingredients to avoid with a digestive problem like SIBO because they can so commonly be irritating and problematic to the digestive system.
6. Allergic Reactions
Although not highly common, erythritol can cause an allergic skin reaction for some people. A study published in 2000 in the Journal of Dermatology demonstrates how drinks containing erythritol can potentially cause a severe allergic skin reaction. A young 24-year-old woman had severe wheals all over her entire body after having one glass of a beverage sweetened with erythritol. (13)
A wheal, often called a welt or hives, is a raised, itchy area of skin that’s sometimes an obvious sign of an allergy to something you’ve consumed or come in contact with. When you suddenly have a negative skin reaction, it’s always important to consider what you most recently consumed, especially if it contained a questionable ingredient like erythritol.
7. Excellent Insecticide
If you’re not yet convinced that you should stay away from erythritol, there’s more. As of 2014, researchers at Drexel University were pursuing a patent on erythritol as an insecticide and are continuing to study its effectiveness. Yes, that’s right — not only is it low in calories, it’s also really great at killing bugs. I wish I was joking, but I’m not.
The 2014 study is titled “Erythritol, a Non-Nutritive Sugar Alcohol Sweetener and the Main Component of Truvia®, Is a Palatable Ingested Insecticide.” The researchers show that erythritol is toxic to flies, which are drawn to its sweet flavor, which makes erythritol a “killer combination.” (14) I don’t know about you, but I certainly would rather put some raw honey in my next cup of tea rather than a proven bug killer.
The Positive Side of Erythritol
If you purchase a product that has erythritol, how do you know if it’s a GMO erythritol? The product needs to have a USDA Organic- or a Non-GMO Project-certified insignia on the packaging. Under these guidelines, it cannot be from a GMO source.
If you choose a non-GMO erythritol, can be beneficial? I would say the answer is somewhat. Fans of this common sweetener mainly love it because of its lack of calories, which can be helpful to weight management. However, as I’ve said before, the lack of calories in sweeteners can be very confusing to our bodies and brains. Many people also choose it as their sweetener of choice because it won’t cause a blood sugar spike, which can be especially helpful for diabetics.
Studies have been mixed, but some say that erythritol can decrease plaque or even help prevent tooth decay. One double-blind, randomized trial study looked at the effects of erythritol on 485 primary school children. Each child consumed four erythritol, xylitol or sorbitol candies three times per school day. In the follow-up examinations, researchers observed a lower number of cavities in the erythritol group than in the xylitol or sorbitol groups. The time until the development of cavities was also longest in the erythritol group. (15)
Better Sweetener Alternatives
Erythritol may have some positives, but I’m not convinced that those positives outweigh the negatives. I personally would rather use stevia leaf extract because it also doesn’t spike blood sugar and has more proven health benefits, including improvements in cholesterol, blood pressure and even some types of cancer. (16) Raw honey is another favorite of mine that’s truly a superfood. I also recommend monk fruit, which is a fruit-derived sweetener that has been used for hundreds of years.
I’m talking about a real stevia leaf extract product, not a “stevia product” that actually contains other sweeteners like erythritol. Stevia is an herbal plant that belongs to the Asteraceae family. The stevia plant has been used for over 1,500 years by the Guaraní people of Brazil and Paraguay. It’s really a great, health-promoting choice when you buy a high-quality, pure stevia leaf extract product. Make sure to buy stevia without additives and one that has been less processed. I recommend green stevia as the best option.
2. Raw Honey
Raw honey is a pure, unfiltered and unpasteurized sweetener made by bees from the nectar of flowers. Unlike processed honey, raw honey does not get robbed of its incredible nutritional value and health powers. It has been scientifically proven to help with allergies, diabetes, sleep problems, coughs and wound healing. Look for a local beekeeper to source your raw honey. This makes it even more likely to help with seasonal allergies.
3. Monk Fruit
Monk fruit, also called luo han guo, has been used as a sweetener for centuries, and after many years being only available overseas, it’s recently become easier to find in grocery stores in the United States. Monk fruit contains compounds that, when extracted, are natural sweeteners 300–400 times sweeter than cane sugar — but with no calories and no effect on blood sugar. Just make sure that the monk fruit product you’re purchasing doesn’t contain any GMO-derived erythritol or other unhealthy additives.
Final Thoughts on Erythritol
Once erythritol enters your body, it’s rapidly absorbed in the small intestine with only about 10 percent entering the colon while the other 90 percent is excreted in the urine. It essentially goes through your system untouched with zero metabolization. Many manufacturers and consumers think this is great because that means no added calories or sugar to your diet, but what about it is really healthy or natural? Certainly nothing if it’s man-made from genetically modified corn products.
Even if it’s not GMO, its ghost passage through the body doesn’t signal any feelings of satiety and can easily lead to overeating. Also, let’s not forget the possible gastrointestinal distress, headaches and allergic reactions.
When we eat or drink anything, we ideally want it to go to work for us and encourage our overall health and well-being. Erythritol might have some benefits, but I just don’t think it does enough good for the human body. You’re much better off choosing a more natural, health-promoting sweetener, like raw honey, in small amounts.
Read Next: Top 10 Natural Sweeteners
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