You may have heard of the alternative sweetener erythritol, especially if you’re on a low-sugar diet like the keto diet. Used in everything from low-sugar salad dressings to low-sugar desserts, erythritol has become a go-to alternative to granulated sugar.
This is probably because erythritol looks and tastes like sugar, but without as many calories and none of the negative qualities. But is it possible for a sweetener to provide all the sweetness of sugar without any harmful side effects? The prospect makes one wonder whether erythritol is simply too good to be true.
What Is Erythritol?
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol, similar to other sweeteners like xylitol and sorbitol. Sugar alcohols are not metabolized by the body the way regular sugar is, which is why people on low-sugar diets enjoy using them. They don’t cause the blood sugar spikes that regular sugar does.
A sugar alcohol like erythritol targets the taste receptors on the tongue that detect sweetness and mimics the effect of sugar. Erythritol is often preferred over other alternative sweeteners because it’s close to the level of sweetness regular sugar offers.
Erythritol is about 70% to 80% as sweet as sugar, while other alternative sweeteners like aspartame, Sucralose (a.k.a. Splenda), and stevia are far, far sweeter than sugar. Being so similar in taste to regular sugar makes erythritol particularly easy to use and eliminates concerns about the end product tasting overly sweet and fake.
Is Erythritol Safe?
Studies have been conducted on erythritol’s use and resulting effects on the body only to conclude that the sweetener is safe to consume. These studies have focused on long-term use of high erythritol consumption, and have found no damaging effects on the body.
For most people, erythritol is a safe alternative to regular sugar. Side effects of erythritol have been limited to digestive issues, which makes sense when you understand how erythritol passes through the body.
Erythritol Side Effects
Because erythritol is not digested and metabolized the way regular sugar is, it can cause digestive problems for those who are sensitive to it. After being ingested, erythritol typically passes through the digestive system, where 90% of it is absorbed into the bloodstream. The remaining 10% travels to the colon and remains relatively resistant to fermentation by colon bacteria.
Because our bodies don’t have the enzymes necessary to break down erythritol, the sugar alcohol just hangs out in the bloodstream for awhile before it’s excreted through our urine. Those who experience digestive issues with erythritol are individuals who usually suffer from digestive conditions like IBS, or they’re just consuming high amounts of erythritol a day (about more than 30 grams a day).
That said, erythritol tends to be a sugar alcohol that is pretty resistant to colon bacteria, so much of the side effects that are commonly complained of relate to excess gas and bloating.
Using Erythritol in Your Diet
In general, it’s always best that the sugar in your diet come from natural sources like fruit, since healthy foods like fruit typically offer more than just sweetness, like a variety of essential nutrients. Including more erythritol in your diet doesn’t provide any particular health benefits, but instead can be used as a healthier alternative to sugar for those times you are using a sweetener for your food.
In order to avoid digestive problems with erythritol, you should limit your daily consumption to 10 to 15 grams. If you suffer from existing digestive health problems, it’s best to speak with your doctor about erythritol and probably avoid using it in your food.