What is Erythritol? Erythritol Side Effects, Dangers and Benefits

Erythritol is a form of alcohol sugar (alcohols are already a combination of sugars and ethanol), commonly found in artificial sweeteners and other low/zero-calorie products. It is a sweet-tasting substance that is mostly unabsorbed during digestion and can be excreted in urine without any serious medical problems. This product can generally be found in diet sodas, low-calorie sweetener sachets and other foods that aim to reduce the amount of calories and calories-from-sugar they contain.

Erythritol was developed in response to two things: (1) the need to replace refined sugars whilst retaining sweet taste, and (2) the shortcomings associated with other sweeteners, particularly alcohol sugars which would cause digestive problems. It is, properly speaking, a corn by-product that has been fermented with yeast or other fungi to produce erythritol. In this sense, we might say that it is a “natural sweetener”, but it does not occur naturally and is produced on an industrial scale. This may alter the way that we view the “natural” label.

It is chemically similar to earlier alcohol sugars such as sorbitol – a famous sweetener which would also cause digestive issues such as bloating or unpleasant gaseous emissions. Erythritol is believed to be symptom-free in this area, though of course this is dose-dependent. As opposed to many other sweeteners, there is no laxative effect associated with this product, even though it is primarily undigested and insoluble.

Dangers and Side-effects of Consumption

As mentioned above, Erythritol was designed to avoid the vast majority of side-effects associated with other sweeteners, particularly other alcohol-sugars. As such, there are relatively few dangers or side effects associated with this product – studies have established that it does not have negative effects on blood glucose (like actual sugar) [1] or the minerals of the teeth [2]. There are some concerns among those who reject processed foods that such sweeteners place undue strain on the kidneys (indeed, they are extracted from the bloodstream and excreted in urine), but there has yet to be any scientific evidence to support claims such as this. This is more likely to be a hypothetical, ideological criticism than anything borne out by clinical research.

There are some examples of criticisms against erythritol when consumed in large quantities – as this can lead to cases of nausea and severe stomach grumbling (not exactly a life threatening-condition) – due to inability to properly process the compound in large quantities. The problem with this criticism is that it overlooks the fact that it would be necessary to consume very large quantities in order to have any negative effects: the literature suggests that negative effects occur at, or above, quantities of 50 grams [3].

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What the critics do not mention is that 50grams of erythritol in a single sitting is an incredibly high dosage. Especially considering that erythritol is combined with other sweeteners (meaning that the levels of this particular compound are likely to be very low indeed). We would struggle to find any single-serving product on the market that contains 50g of erythritol or more. We would be hard-pressed to find a single product on the market which contains such high quantities of just erythritol – the drinks presented in the study, therefore, do not seem to correlate well with the actual manufacturing practices.

Additionally, it is important to compare the short-term effects of sweetener consumption within the context of the traditional sweetener: sugar. A consumption of 50g of erythritol includes the possibility of nausea or stomach grumbling, whereas a consistently excessive consumption of refined sugar risks increased chances of developing diabetes, metabolic syndrome, tooth decay, weight gain (when compared with low/zero-calorie alternatives) and a whole host of short-term effects [4]. Clearly, the risks of erythritol do not seem particularly severe when compared to those associated with sugar.

There are also numerous reports of individuals having allergic reactions to erythritol: whilst these can be unpleasant and result in common anaphylactic symptoms (skin and throat irritation, blotchiness etc.), this seems to be an unusual criticism of the compound itself. After all, there are individuals who are allergic to sunlight, water and other commonplace dietary and environmental factors. This does not mean to say that there are no problems with erythritol, but simply that adverse reactions due to allergies should be ascribed to the individual’s conditions and not used to criticize the things that cause such reactions.

The Benefits of Erythritol

The obvious benefit of erythritol is that it is very close to 0-calorie. At 0.2 calories per gram, it is 40 times more calorie-sparse than a gram of sugar. This means that the contribution of erythritol to excessive calorie consumption is negligible – especially when compared to the calorie-density of high-sugar products. Especially in the case of soda or ‘energy drink’ products (generally made from the mixture of carbonated water and high-fructose corn syrups), where sugar content can be as high as 30-65% by weight. This means that a 330ml can (average size) could contain more than 100g of sugar (400 calories).

The replacement of sugar also has a huge effect on the blood glucose levels associated with high sugar consumption. Beyond simple calories, we need to consider the huge negative effects that 100g of sugar can have on the body and the blood sugar – needless to say, this is a disastrous quantity of refined carbohydrates to ingest. This increase in blood sugar is bad because sugar is hepatotoxic: excessive amounts are toxic to the liver and can cause huge problems [5]. Aside from developing serious insulin resistance (associated with pre-diabetes and Type-2 diabetes), it negatively effects the lipids in the bloodstream and increases the chances of heart and kidney disease through various pathways.

Bottom Line

There have been many negative, possibly scare-mongering articles and blog posts on the internet regarding erythritol – these tend to attempt to blow the dangers out of reasonable proportion or conflate erythritol with other, similar alcohol sugars. This compound has been manufactured in response to the same criticisms being leveled against its predecessors and there seems to be a genuine mistrust of sweeteners for its own sake online.

We cannot speak to the benefits of erythritol beyond the fact that it is not sugar or a poor-quality alcohol sugar. However, it seems presumptuous to label it dangerous or write articles full of warnings about the substance. Would it be better for you to consume water than an erythritol-sweetened diet soda? Of course. Would it be better to consume a sugar-sweetened soda to one that has been sweetened with erythritol? This is also a resounding ‘no’. Take erythritol for what it is and don’t expect it to be a health food, but the lesser of two evils.

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Reference

[1] Noda et al (1994): ‘Serum glucose and insulin levels and erythritol balance after oral administration of erythritol in healthy subjects’. European journal of clinical nutrition, 48(4), pp.286-292
[2] Kawanabe et al (1992): ‘noncarcinogenicity of erythritol as a substrate’. Caries research, 26(5), pp.358-362
[3] Storey et al (2007): ‘Gastrointestinal tolerance of erythritol and xylitol ingested in a liquid’. European journal of clinical nutrition, 61(3), pp349-354.
[4] Roberts and Liu (2009): ‘Effects of glycaemic load on metabolic health and type-2 diabetes’. Journal of diabetes science and technology, 3(4), pp.697-704
[5] Nseir et al (2010): ‘Soft drinks consumption and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease’. World journal of gastroenterology, 16(21), pp.2579-2588

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