Even though plenty of people are kicking their sugar habit, low- or no-calorie sweeteners still have us scratching our heads.
But commonly used sugar alcohols (aka polyols, a type of carbohydrate) like erythritol can be a healthy — and delicious — way to have your cake and eat it, too. Here's the sweet scoop.
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What Is Erythritol?
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol used as a low-calorie sweetener. It's found in sugar-free or no-sugar-added ice creams, 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, they just taste and look a lot like sugar but without the calories or carbs you'd get from the standard sweet stuff, per Michigan State University.
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 and 1 gram of carbs per 1/4 teaspoon. That's lower than most other sugar alcohols, which generally contain about 1/3 to 1/2 the calories of table sugar, per MSU. It's also lower than you might expect for 1 gram of carbs; because the carbs in sugar alcohols are not digested well, they provide fewer calories than other carbs.
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 erythritol's safety. But 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 eat. 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 generally had a clean record, per the Mayo Clinic.
However, concern was sparked after a February 2023 study in Nature Medicine found people with pre-existing risk factors for heart disease (like diabetes) were twice as likely to have a heart attack or a stroke over a three-year period if high levels of polyols, especially erythritol, were found in their blood.
It's important to keep in mind these results are preliminary, the study subjects were already at risk for heart disease and the study didn't measure dietary intake of polyols, just blood levels. More research is needed in order to fully understand potential long-term safety risks. For now, erythritol is considered safe to eat. But large quantities may still cause some side effects (more on that below).
How to Use Erythritol
You can use the sugar alcohol in the same way you'd use sugar. Here are a few ideas:
- Bake with it
- Add it to coffee or tea
- Sprinkle it into smoothies or fresh fruit
4 Benefits of Erythritol
Its sweet flavor, virtual lack of calories and safety record mean there are plenty of reasons to consider giving it a try.
1. It Can Help Curb Your Carb Intake
Erythritol is virtually calorie- and carb-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 can help you cut your calorie intake, potentially making it easier to lose body weight, per Harvard Health Publishing.
The key is continuing to enjoy sweet treats in moderation and read food labels carefully. Desserts made with erythritol instead of sugar still contain calories from other ingredients, and the calories can still add up.
3. It Can Help Your Oral Health
Unlike other forms of sugar, erythritol doesn't contribute to tooth decay or cavities. In fact, it can thwart the growth of harmful oral bacteria that increases cavity risk more than other sugar alcohols like sorbitol and xylitol, according to an August 2016 study in the International Journal of Dentistry.
4. It Likely Won't Affect Your Blood Sugar
Unlike artificial sweeteners, sugar alcohols are carbohydrates, and most can still raise blood sugar levels, according to the ADA — but your body doesn't completely absorb sugar alcohols. That means they may have a less significant effect on your blood sugar than other sweeteners. Erythritol in particular has essentially no effect on blood sugar, according to March 2021 research in the Journal of Food and Drug Analysis.
If you have diabetes and need to take steps to control your blood sugar and insulin, talk to your doctor before adding sugar alcohols to your diet.
A Potential Side Effect of Erythritol: GI Issues
Like with most ingredients, even ones considered healthy, it's possible to have too much of a good thing.
Sugar alcohols have a reputation for causing digestive issues like diarrhea, bloating and gas, especially when eaten in large amounts.
Erythritol tends to be a little easier on the GI tract than some other sugar alcohols like sorbitol and mannitol, according to the IFIC.
Erythritol has fewer side effects than many other sugar alcohols. It can be a better-for-you alternative to regular sugar depending on your personal goals and nutrition needs, and that’s the case for people with diabetes, too — just get the OK from your doctor before adding it to your diet. Potential links to heart health risks are preliminary and require further research.
- ADA: "Get to Know Carbs"
- Mayo Clinic: "Artificial Sweeteners and Other Sugar Substitutes"
- Yale New Haven Health: "Eat Any Sugar Alcohol Lately?"
- Nature Medicine: "The Artificial Sweetener Erythritol and Cardiovascular Event Risk"
- MSU: "What are sugar alcohols?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Do Sugar Substitutes Help You Lose Weight?"
- Journal of Food and Drug Analysis: "Suitability of sugar alcohols as antidiabetic supplements: A review"