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You may have seen this ingredient listed on some food labels and wondered what the heck is that!? Even as a registered dietitian, I say this about a lot of ingredients – which is why I tirelessly research what is safe and what isn’t. A perfect example is the fact that Mio, the most popular water enhancer, has propylene glycol in it – propylene glycol is a synthetic liquid substance that absorbs water and is used in cosmetics and pharmecueticals, as well as some of our food. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified it as ‘generally recognized as safe’ in food products; however, I personally avoid it!
Let’s get back to erythritol. The most common foods that contain this ingredient are those that are low-sugar or sugar free, like energy drinks, energy bars and protein bars, ice cream, cakes, cookies, candies, and jams. The reason erythritol is used in these foods is because it is a sugar alcohol, which contain half the calories of regular sugar. Many foods labeled “sugar-free” or “reduced-sugar” contain sugar alcohols, with the most common ones being maltitiol, mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, isomalt, erythritol, and hydrogenated starch hydrolases.
Most sugar alcohols are actually found in some foods in small amounts, including fruits, vegetables, and fermented foods. However, they are also added to foods as a low-calorie sweetener option, because they stimulate the sweet taste receptors on your tongue due to the way they are structured. The reason erythritol, is popular in particular is because it actually contains less calories than other sugar alcohols. Regular table sugar contains 4 calories per gram, while xylitol contains 2.4 calories per gram and erythritol contains just 0.24 calories per gram.
Both animal and human studies have shown that erythritol, even at high doses, appears to be safe. The one problem with erythritol and other sugar alcohols are the potential digestive distress issues – if you have not read the reviews on Amazon for the Haribo Sugar-Free Gummy Bears, please do so! The main ingredient in those gummy bears was lycasin, a maltitol syrup. Because of the unique chemical makeup of sugar alcohols, they are not digested in the human body and pass through the digestive system until they reach the colon. For the poor souls who ate a lot of the sugar-free gummy bears, they had a huge rush of undigested maltitol to their colon, causing the diarrheal issues.
Again, erythritol is different! Studies looking at the absorption of erythritol actually show that it is absorbed in the bloodstream and circulates in the blood until it is eventually excreted in the urine. However, some erythritol will travel down the digestive tract to the colon, as it is not all absorbed in the bloodstream. Therefore, eating large amounts of erythritol can still cause digestive distress, like bloating, gas, and diarrhea. It is important to keep in mind that everyone’s tolerance level is unique. In addition, if you know that you are sensitive to FODMAPs it is important to avoid all sugar alcohols.
Overall, erythritol seems to be safe and a good option as a sweetener. It contains very little calories, tastes almost as sweet as regular sugar, and will not raise blood sugar levels, as most of it is excreted in the urine. My advice: there is no need to avoid foods that contain erythritol, unless you are sensitive to FODMAPS; however, as with everything, moderation is best!
Arrigoni, E., Brouns, F., & Amado, R. (2005). Human gut microbiota does not ferment erythritol. British journal of nutrition, 94(5), 643-646.
Boesten, D. M., den Hartog, G. J., de Cock, P., Bosscher, D., Bonnema, A., & Bast, A. (2015). Health effects of erythritol. Nutrafoods, 14(1), 3-9.
Eapen, A. K., de Cock, P., Crincoli, C. M., Means, C., Wismer, T., & Pappas, C. (2017). Acute and sub-chronic oral toxicity studies of erythritol in Beagle dogs. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 105, 448-455.
Hiele, M., Ghoos, Y., Rutgeerts, P., & Vantrappen, G. (1993). Metabolism of erythritol in humans: comparison with glucose and lactitol. British Journal of Nutrition, 69(1), 169-176.
Lina, B. A. R., Bos-Kuijpers, M. H. M., Til, H. P., & Bär, A. (1996). Chronic toxicity and carcinogenicity study of erythritol in rats. Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 24(2), S264-S279.
Munro, I. C., Bernt, W. O., Borzelleca, J. F., Flamm, G., Lynch, B. S., Kennepohl, E., ... & Modderman, J. (1998). Erythritol: an interpretive summary of biochemical, metabolic, toxicological and clinical data. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 36(12), 1139-1174.
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For years now, I have been questioning modern medicine and what some people call “normal” treatment. A lot of this speculation has come from my own experiences helping individuals through health struggles, eating disorders, and sports injuries. I have had clients tell me all sorts of things about their general practitioners – shaming them to lose weight, telling them to starve themselves until the weight is gone; as if this is going to solve all their problems, and starting them on medications for no conceivable reason. I know these health care professionals mean well. The problem is not their intentions (not usually, anyways). The problem is our current health care system. Physicians are pressed for time and prescription pads are the easy way out.
Is there another way? A growing evidence base shows that addressing the underlying causes of patients’ illnesses with a personalized lifestyle program is far more likely to prevent and possibly reverse the vast majority of chronic diseases. Therefore, it is only logical that a treatment plan that focuses on diet and lifestyle is far more effective than throwing a medication at someone. This is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. What truly helps is getting to the root cause of what is going on and exploring every aspect of the patient’s lifestyle – emotional, spiritual, physical, and mental. This is called integrative medicine.
In the integrative medicine model, nutrition is at the core of the functional medicine approach in the prevention and treatment of disease. Integrative and functional nutrition is a systems-based approach that evaluates the many interacting factors that promote health or disease. It seeks to understand the root causes of possible imbalances that influence someone’s biology, genetics, nutritional status and well-being. A comprehensive nutrition assessment helps the practitioner design a personalized treatment plan, tailored to the patient’s unique needs and lifestyle to support the highest amount of health and healing. This integrated approach can dramatically improve patient outcomes and quality of life.
This model of nutrition therapy is extremely comprehensive and entails a robust relationship between patient and practitioner. The nutrition assessment is very in-depth and on-going until all possible imbalances are found; in order to correct and resolve symptoms. What an integrative and functional dietitian will look at includes, but is not limited to:
Jones, D. S. (2010). Needed: A coherent architecture for 21st-century clinical practice and medical education. Alternative therapies in health and medicine, 16(4), 64.
World Health Organization. Obesity Fact Sheet. 2013. Online document at:
www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/ Accessed April 25, 2014.
As an anti-diet dietitian; I do my absolute best to teach people how to eat and enjoy food without worrying about every single thing they put into their mouths. There is so much shame, judgement, and stereotypes surrounding food; which oftentimes leads to dangerous and destructive food behaviors. What I have found, through my own experiences, as well as my clients’, is that the more you worry, obsess, and judge yourself and others about food, the more damaging your thoughts and behaviors become. How many of you have a friend that is CONSTANTLY talking about his/her weight, new diet, or foods they can and can’t eat? Do these people ever see results? Usually, the answer is no. This constant obsession and fight with your body is not the answer to your health and body size goals. You need to stop listening to society telling you to constantly obsess about the size of your body and what new diet plan you should start next. This is not the answer.
So, what is the answer to your weight/health goals? I do not have a magic wand or the perfect answer, but I will tell you what has worked for me and my clients.
We live in the greatest country ever ya’ll. Enjoy your holiday celebrating all of the opportunities available to you!
Allison Tropf, MS, RD, CSSD
Allison is a Sports Dietitian in Michigan. She enjoys helping others reach their nutrition and fitness goals through reliable and trustworthy recommendations.
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