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! References:
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.