Is Erythritol Actually A “Healthy” Sugar Substitute? Studies Say No

The promise of a sugar-free substitute in the form of erythritol wooed a lot of people. However, there’s a dark side to this sweetener. Let’s take a look and see why.

By Anna Hugoboom2 min read
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This popular sugar substitute was touted as the stevia twin of health awareness and sugar elimination. While the sugar phobic tossed out natural sweeteners, like raw honey, they welcomed alcohol sugars, like erythritol, with open arms. Those who subscribe to the Keto lifestyle went crazy over it. Many consumers believed it to be a healthy option and put it in their coffee, protein shakes (I did for a while), baked goods, ice cream, “sugar-free” candy, and chewing gum — until their gut went on strike.

Erythritol, the "Healthy" Substitute

Erythritol is an alcohol sugar that's synthesized from corn using enzymes and fermentation. Although it’s been approved as “safe” by the World Health Organization and the FDA, recent studies are showing serious health risks and side effects associated with its use.

One side effect of erythritol is that it causes inflammation — so it’s counterproductive if you’re swapping it for sugar in the hopes of eating an anti-inflammatory diet. More and more people have shown erythritol wreaks havoc on the gastrointestinal system. Erythritol’s side effects include gas, bloating, diarrhea, cramps, and intestinal inflammation. Along with other artificial/alcohol sugars, erythritol can also trigger and exacerbate IBS symptoms and imbalance your gut bacteria. New studies from Cleveland Clinic and other research have also shown that erythritol may also be harmful to the nervous and cardiovascular systems, presenting increased risk for stroke and heart attacks.

Why Is Erythritol Still a Thing?

The American obsession with finding sugar substitutes so they can enjoy “guilt-free” sweet pleasures without moderation unsurprisingly correlates with the huge increase in GI disorders and digestive issues. So why haven’t people connected the dots? It could be because sugar is addictive, and every sweet bite sends a rush of dopamine from those taste buds to the brain. With people telling themselves they can eat sweets to their heart’s content, it’s no wonder the sugar-free industry is always pumping out new products.

What To Do?

Simple: Avoid erythritol. If it’s in your kitchen in any form, throw it away. In the fall of my junior year at college, I realized there was erythritol in the new protein powder that I’d been taking. Over the two months that I had been taking that protein powder, I began having increased digestive problems that ultimately developed into Crohn’s disease. Moral of the story: Check product labels! Scan ingredients for erythritol (and other artificial sweeteners, while you’re at it), especially those products marked “low calorie,” “Keto-friendly,” or “sugar-free.” Even if it says “organic erythritol,” don’t be fooled! It just means the corn it's derived from is organic, but the chemical process is the same. Plus, in case you haven’t noticed, erythritol-sweetened products have a really distinct aftertaste that, frankly, I find pretty gross.

But What If I Want Something Sweet?

Every now and then, it's not only okay, but it's good to indulge in something sweet. In fact, our feminine bodies actually need a certain amount of sugar to stabilize blood glucose. The key is to look for the natural kinds of sugars, like raw honey and maple syrup in limited amounts. Your hunter-gatherer ancestors ate naturally sweet foods like fruit and honey in the wild, and they didn’t have our modern illnesses. Plus, fruit has several health benefits, including vitamin C, potassium, and antioxidants, while raw honey has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties with other amazing benefits. Stevia is also fine in limited amounts, though it’s not the best to consume on a regular basis because it still is a processed sweetener. Also beware: Sometimes stevia blends contain erythritol, so read the label!

Next time you want to reach for a sweet treat, instead of blowing through a bag of sugar-free erythritol-sweetened caramels or even M&Ms, munch on a small bowl of fresh berries or frozen grapes (so delish and satisfying, if you haven’t tried them). Or make yourself a bowl of banana "ice cream." (Hint: The only ingredient is ripe bananas!) Even small amounts of organic dark chocolate have multiple benefits besides satisfying your sweet tooth. The key, even when consuming healthy natural sugars, is moderation.

Closing Thoughts

Bottom line: Erythritol is bad for you. Toss it out of your life. If you want to live a healthy lifestyle, look to fruit and raw honey to satisfy your sugar cravings. for your natural sweets and maybe find some healthy treats recipes on Pinterest you can make using natural sweeteners in their original forms.

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