Registered dietitian Natalie Rizzo explains what erythritol is and why it appears in so many artificially-sweetened products.
If you’ve ever tasted a sweetened “zero calorie” beverage, you’ve probably had erythritol. This newish sweetener is being added to drinks, ice cream and baked goods as a way to add sweetness without all the extra calories. But with any new food additive on the market, one has to wonder: What exactly is it, and is it bad for you?
What is erythritol?
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol, which is naturally present in some fruits and fermented foods. The erythritol in many low-calorie ice creams and protein bars is a man-made additive from the fermentation of wheat or cornstarch, which creates a crystalline product similar to sugar.
Erythritol is about 60 to 80 percent as sweet as table sugar and contains zero to 0.2 calories per gram, according to the International Food Information Council. To put that into perspective, sugar has four calories per gram, which is why many manufacturers are opting for erythritol to reduce calories in sweetened products.
Adding sweetness without calories sounds like a major pro in our book, but that’s not the only benefit erythritol offers. Since it’s not sugar, erythritol doesn’t spike your blood sugar or cause an ensuing energy crash. According to the Food and Drug Administration, erythritol doesn’t contribute to cavities, so it will also keep your pearly whites intact. And if you’re familiar with sugar alcohols, you may know that they have been linked to digestive issues, like diarrhea and bloating. Yet due to its smaller molecular weight in comparison with other sugar alcohols, research has found that erythritol does not cause the same stomach issues. That’s good news for runners, who already have wonky stomachs and digestive issues from their sport. Lastly, if you find yourself worrying about this artificial sweetener and cancer, don’t. A recent review found no link between erythritol consumption and cancer development.
Unfortunately, studies conducted about zero-calorie sweeteners have suggested that they may actually cause weight gain, rather than weight loss. Considering the additive provides no nutritive value besides added sweetness, this may come as no surprise. And although the research indicates that erythritol won’t cause stomach issues, eating a large amount of erythritol (e.g. more than 30 grams, or the amount in a pint of Halo Top ice cream) can cause diarrhea and bloating. In other words, don’t go overboard. Since erythritol has virtually no calories, it doesn’t provide the energy you need for running, so don’t use it as pre-workout fuel.
The Bottom Line
Erythritol is a FDA-approved sweetener. Expect to see it in many more products on the market, but know that it’s not entirely natural. It won’t fuel your running routine, but it also won’t cause tummy troubles. Like most foods, it’s perfectly fine in moderation.