Some sugar substitute claims seem too good to be true–erythritol is one example. Does it provide the body with calories? It’s marketed as a zero-calorie sweetener.
I should also mention that sugar substitutes are also known as non-nutritive sweeteners. You might hear me and others use these terms synonymously.
Erythritol: A Sugar-Alcohol
The Sugar of Erythritol
Erythritol is a sugar-alcohol, which means its chemical properties contain compounds that resemble both sugar and alcohol. How does this happen?
Erythritol is made by metabolizing the starches found in wheat or corn. Whenever we metabolize a carbohydrate, sugar is the result. That’s where erythritol gets its “sugar” moniker.
The Alcohol of Erythritol
What about the alcohol? Basically, this sugar gets fermented into alcohol. Usually this takes time, but food manufacturers can speed up this process by adding certain species of yeast.
If we think about this process for a moment, doesn’t it sound really familiar? I feel like I just described how to make wine or beer. Sure enough, erythritol is found in a number of commonly consumed foods like wine, beer, and even soy sauce.
Does Erythritol Contain Calories?
Of course wine, beer, and soy sauce do contain calories because they are made with other ingredients–erythritol is only one component of these foods. But the actual chemical compound erythritol itself, because of the way it is digested and absorbed by the body, does not provide any calories. The marketing claims are in fact true.
Erythritol vs. Sucrose
Here’s what’s happening: scientists have discovered a way to manufacture erythritol in a lab, so that it can be added to other food products. When it’s isolated like this, erythritol is 60-80% as sweet as its cousin, sucrose. Sucrose is found in most plant-based foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, but is also used as the main ingredient in syrups and caramel sauces.
While erythritol won’t taste as sweet as syrup, it’s still fairly sweet, and because scientists can make a nearly 100% pure version of it, it can be added to foods to help improve their taste.
How come it doesn’t provide the body with any calories?
Why Erythritol is Calorie-Free
Once erythritol hits the tongue, it triggers the sweet receptors there. The brain gets the signal that we’re consuming something sweet.
But once the erythritol gets to the intestines, it’s absorbed very quickly into the bloodstream (even faster than its other cousin, glucose). It continues travelling in the bloodstream until it gets picked up by the kidneys.
It really doesn’t have time to provide any energy to the body–it gets absorbed, then excreted. If for some reason there’s any erythritol left over in the bloodstream that wasn’t excreted by the kidneys, then it will get sent to the large intestine where it will be excreted… in other ways.
Is Erythritol Safe to Consume?
We consume it regularly since it’s found in many foods in its natural state.
But we also find its manufactured, purified, additive form in chewing gum, beverages, and baked goods. We may end up consuming more of it than we think.
In general, it seems to have a low risk for causing negative health effects. The most common side effect of consuming too much erythritol, or any other sugar alcohol for that matter, is diarrhea.