Even though plenty of people are kicking their sugar habit, low- or no-calorie sweeteners still have most of us scratching our heads.
But commonly used sugar alcohols (aka polyols) like erythritol can be a healthy — and still delicious — way to have your cake and eat it, too. Here's the sweet scoop.
What Is Erythritol?
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol used as a low-calorie sweetener. It's found in sugar-free or no-sugar-added versions of ice cream, baked goods, candy and gum, among others, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
Erythritol occurs naturally in foods such as grapes, mushrooms, pears and watermelon, per the International Food Information Council (IFIC).
Despite the name, sugar alcohols don't contain any actual alcohol. Instead, erythritol just tastes and looks a lot like sugar, albeit without the calories or carbohydrates you'd get from the standard sweet stuff, per Michigan State University (MSU) Extension.
The fact that erythritol and other sugar alcohols are low-carb means they have a minimal effect on blood sugar. That can make them a good option for people with diabetes or for folks who are following an ultra-low-carb diet like the keto diet.
Erythritol is virtually calorie-free, with around 0.2 calories per gram. That's lower than most other sugar alcohols, which generally contain about one-half to one-third the calories of table sugar, according to MSU Extension. Here's how it stacks up to other sweeteners.
Calories in Erythritol vs. Other Sweeteners
Calories Per 1/4 Teaspoon (1 g)
Is Erythritol Safe?
Sugar alcohols are commonly confused with artificial sweeteners like saccharin and aspartame, which has led to concerns over whether erythritol is really safe. But in fact, sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners aren't the same, according to Yale New Haven Health.
Both sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners are regulated by the FDA and are considered safe to consume. But while artificial sweeteners have had a bit of a murky past (research from the 1970s linked them to cancer in lab rats), sugar alcohols like erythritol have a clean record, per the Mayo Clinic.
3 Benefits of Erythritol
Erythritol's sweet flavor, virtual lack of calories and safety record mean that there are plenty of reasons to consider giving it a try.
1. It Can Help Curb Your Carb Intake
Erythritol is virtually calorie- and carbohydrate-free. That makes it a better option for satisfying your sweet tooth compared to things like sugar, honey or maple syrup if you have diabetes or are on a low-carb diet.
2. It Can Help You Reach Your Weight Loss Goals
Using erythritol in place of sugar is a swap that can help you cut your calorie intake overall, potentially making it easier to lose weight, per Harvard Health Publishing.
The key is continuing to enjoy sweet treats in moderation. Desserts made with erythritol instead of sugar still contain calories from other ingredients, and the calories can still add up if you overdo it.
3. It Won’t Contribute to Tooth Decay
Unlike other forms of sugar, erythritol (and other sugar alcohols) doesn't contribute to tooth decay or cavities. In fact, it can thwart the growth of harmful oral bacteria that increases cavity risk, according to an August 2016 study published in the International Journal of Dentistry.
2 Potential Side Effects of Erythritol
Like with most ingredients, even ones considered healthy, it's possible to have too much of a good thing.
1. It Might Mess With Your Digestion
Sugar alcohols have a reputation for causing digestive issues like diarrhea, bloating and gas, especially when eaten in large amounts.
Though erythritol tends to be a little easier on the GI tract than some other sugar alcohols like sorbitol and mannitol, the IFIC notes.
2. It Could Potentially Affect Your Blood Sugar (in Very Large Quantities)
Unlike artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols are carbohydrates, and most can still raise blood sugar levels, according to the Mayo Clinic. Your body doesn't completely absorb sugar alcohols so they may have a less significant effect on your blood sugar than other sweeteners.
If you have diabetes and need to take steps to control your blood sugar, it's worth getting the green light from your doctor before adding erythritol or any other sugar alcohol to your diet.
The Verdict on Erythritol
Erythritol can be a better-for-you alternative to regular sugar and it has fewer side effects than many other sugar alcohols. So it can be a healthy choice, depending on your personal goals and nutrition needs. That’s the case for people with diabetes too — just be sure to get the OK from your doctor before adding erythritol to your diet.