Erythritol: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly with This Common Sweetener

June 21, 2017
Erythritol - Dr. Axe

Erythritol is a sugar alcohol like xylitol that I’ve spoken about before in my article titled “The 5 Worst Artificial Sweeteners.” A lot of people think it’s awesome because it decreases the amount of sugar and calories in what they’re consuming. You’ll commonly find it as an ingredient in low-sugar and sugar-free foods, but there are some very concerning and common erythritol side effects  even when it’s used in low amounts, erythritol consumption can cause diarrhea, stomachache and headache.

The reason why it doesn’t provide calories or sugar to its consumer is because the body actually can’t break it down! That’s right — even though erythritol travels through your body, it doesn’t get metabolized. (1)

Is erythritol a safe and smart substitute for sugar? If it’s made from GMO cornstarch, then absolutely not. I definitely don’t recommend it, especially when there are healthier, safer options readily available. If you’re talking about non-GMO erythritol, then it can be a better choice than some other artificial sweeteners, but I still think there are better options out there.

Erythritol is rapidly absorbed in the small intestine, but it’s poorly metabolized, has absolutely no known functions in the human body and is excreted through the urine unchanged. As we’ve seen before, just because a sweetener doesn’t have calories and doesn’t appear to affect blood sugar, it does not mean that it’s good for your health.


What Is Erythritol?

If you’re a label reader (and I hope you are!), you may have noticed erythritol becoming more and more prominent in ingredient lists lately, especially in energy and sports drinks, thinking to yourself, what is erythritol? It naturally occurs in some fruits and fermented foods, but the variety being added to food and beverages today is typically man-made from GMO cornstarch, resulting in an ultra-processed food — very far from a natural sweetening agent. It’s one of those “invisible GMO ingredients.” It’s also likely to be an insecticide in the near future since researchers have found that the main component of Truvia®, erythritol has proven potent insecticidal activity. (2)

Erythritol is a four-carbon sugar alcohol or polyol that contains about 60 percent to 80 percent of the sweetness of table sugar. Sugar alcohol has nothing to do with cocktails, though since it does not contain ethanol (aka alcohol) like alcoholic beverages. Other sugar alcohols include sorbitol, lactitol, maltitol, mannitol and xylitol. Fruits like watermelon, pear and grapes naturally have minor amounts of erythritol, as do mushrooms and fermented foods like cheese, wine, beer and sake. (3)

Erythritol was first discovered in 1848 by a Scottish chemist named John Stenhouse. Japan has been using it since the early 1990s in candies, jellies, jams, chocolate, yogurt, beverages and as a sugar substitute. It’s gained popularity in the United States more recently. As of 1997, it has the status of generally recognized as safe from the FDA, which honestly really doesn’t tell you much about how safe it is. The food industry and consumers love it because it can have up to 80 percent of the sweetness of sugar, but it’s noncaloric and does not raise blood sugar levels.

Erythritol is now commonly added to many packaged food and drink items as well as sugar-free gums, mints and even some medications. It’s also available by itself as a granulated or powdered sweetener, like Zsweet and Swerve. Erythritol does occur naturally in some fruits and fermented foods — however, the problem is that the grand majority of erythritol used in products today is man-made by taking glucose (most commonly from GMO cornstarch) and fermenting it with a yeast called Moniliella pollinis.


7 Reasons to Not Consume Erythritol (Especially the GMO Kind)

1. GMO

The World Health Organization defines genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as “foods derived from organisms whose genetic material (DNA) has been modified in a way that does not occur naturally, e.g. through the introduction of a gene from a different organism.” (4) Much of the erythritol used in foods and beverages today is derived from cornstarch from genetically modified corn.

Truvia, which markets itself as stevia, is actually about 95 percent genetically modified erythritol with a little bit of rebiana (a stevia derivative) and “natural flavors” thrown in. (5) Animal studies have linked consumption of GMOs with infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. (6)

2. Commonly Combined with Artificial Sweeteners

Erythritol is not as sweet as sugar on its own so it’s often combined in foods and beverages with other questionable sweeteners, usually ones that are artificial. When combined with artificial sweeteners like aspartame, the erythritol-laden product becomes even more lethal to your health. Side effects of aspartame include anxiety, depression, short-term memory loss, fibromyalgia, weight gain, fatigue, brain tumors and more.

Since products containing erythritol typically also contain artificial sweeteners like aspartame, the side effects of that particular food or beverage become even more likely as well as dangerous.

3. Gastrointestinal Problems and Headache

Sugar alcohols like erythritol are well-known for their link to digestive issues. Some of the most common erythritol side effects in small amounts, and especially in large amounts, are undesirable gastrointestinal side effects. These GI side effects are especially common in children. (7)

Unfortunately, the gastrointestinal issues don’t necessarily stop at some rumbling in your stomach. Diarrhea is a well-known common erythritol side effect. Especially when consumed in excess, unabsorbed erythritol can attract water from the intestinal wall and cause diarrhea. The likelihood of diarrhea appears to be even more likely when erythritol is consumed along with fructose. (8Diarrhea might sound harmless, but it can lead to dehydration and malnutrition.

Many people report upset stomach and diarrhea after consuming normal amounts of erythritol in food or beverages. If consumption is high (50 grams or more per day) then digestive troubles, including gas, cramping, bloating, stomachache and diarrhea, become even more likely. One study specifically showed that the intake of 50 grams of erythritol causes stomach rumbling and nausea. (9)

In 2012, a pediatric study looked at the GI tolerability of erythritol. The aim was to determine the maximum dose level of erythritol that’s well-tolerated by young children (4–6 years old) in a single drinking occasion. The researchers concluded that there is “a safety concern with respect to GI tolerability for the use of erythritol in beverages at a maximum use level of 2.5% for non-sweetening purposes.” (10)

Headaches are another common but less studied side effect.

 

Seven reasons to not consume erythritol - Dr. Axe

 

4. Could Lead to Overeating

One of the ongoing problems with noncaloric artificial sweeteners is that they don’t get processed by your body the way regular sugar gets processed. When you eat foods containing table sugar and healthier natural sweeteners, your body knows exactly what to do with them. The sugar gets metabolized, and hormones are released to decrease your appetite.

The problem with erythritol is that it’s a sugar alcohol that basically just goes right through your body. It does not metabolized, and therefore, your body may not be getting calories or sugar. It’s also not registering that any fuel got put into your body at all. This is why you can end up still feeling hungry after you consume products with alternative and fake man-made sugars. The body is left feeling unfilled, and you still want to eat or drink something else. This is a slippery slope that can lead to overeating and weight gain. Weight gain has been seen when sugar alcohols like erythritol are overeaten. (11)

5. Terrible for SIBO and IBS Sufferers

SIBO is a more prevalent digestive disorder than previously believed, and it occurs in many people suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other underlying conditions. (12) SIBO is the acronym for “small intestinal bacterial overgrowth,” defined as excessive bacteria in the small intestine. While bacteria naturally occurs throughout the digestive tract, in a healthy system, the small intestine is supposed to have relatively low levels of bacteria. When people suffer from SIBO or IBS, what they put into their bodies on a daily basis can truly spell the difference between healing or increased distress.

Polyols like erythritol top the list for ingredients to avoid with a digestive problem like SIBO because they can so commonly be irritating and problematic to the digestive system.

6. Allergic Reactions

Although not highly common, erythritol can cause an allergic skin reaction for some people. A study published in 2000 in the Journal of Dermatology demonstrates how drinks containing erythritol can potentially cause a severe allergic skin reaction. A young 24-year-old woman had severe wheals all over her entire body after having one glass of a beverage sweetened with erythritol. (13)

A wheal, often called a welt or hives, is a a raised, itchy area of skin that’s sometimes an obvious sign of an allergy to something you’ve consumed or come in contact with. When you suddenly have a negative skin reaction, it’s always important to consider what you most recently consumed, especially if it contained a questionable ingredient like erythritol.

7.  Excellent Insecticide

If you’re not yet convinced that you should stay away from erythritol, there’s more. As of 2014, researchers at Drexel University were pursuing a patent on erythritol as an insecticide and are continuing to study its effectiveness. Yes, that’s right  not only is it low in calories, it’s also really great at killing bugs. I wish I was joking, but I’m not.

The 2014 study is titled “Erythritol, a Non-Nutritive Sugar Alcohol Sweetener and the Main Component of Truvia®, Is a Palatable Ingested Insecticide.” The researchers show that erythritol is toxic to flies, which are drawn to its sweet flavor, which makes erythritol a “killer combination.” (14) I don’t know about you, but I certainly would rather put some raw honey in my next cup of tea rather than a proven bug killer.


The Positive Side of Erythritol 

If you purchase a product that has erythritol, how do you know if it’s a GMO erythritol? The product needs to have a USDA Organic- or a Non-GMO Project-certified insignia on the packaging. Under these guidelines, it cannot be from a GMO source.

If you choose a non-GMO erythritol, can be beneficial? I would say the answer is somewhat. Fans of this common sweetener mainly love it because of its lack of calories, which can be helpful to weight management. However, as I’ve said before, the lack of calories in sweeteners can be very confusing to our bodies and brains. Many people also choose it as their sweetener of choice because it won’t cause a blood sugar spike, which can be especially helpful for diabetics.

Studies have been mixed, but some say that erythritol can decrease plaque or, at the least, not contribute to tooth decay. One double-blind, randomized trial study looked at the effects of erythritol on 485 primary school children. Each child consumed four erythritol, xylitol or sorbitol candies three times per school day. In the follow-up examinations, researchers observed a lower number of cavities in the erythritol group than in the xylitol or sorbitol groups. The time until the development of cavities was also longest in the erythritol group. (15)


Better Sweetener Alternatives

Erythritol may have some positives, but I’m not convinced that those positives outweigh the negatives. I personally would rather use stevia because it also doesn’t spike blood sugar and has more proven health benefits, including improvements in cholesterol, blood pressure and even some types of cancer. (16) Raw honey is another favorite of mine that’s truly a superfood. I also recommend monk fruit, which is a fruit-derived sweetener that has been used for hundreds of years.

Stevia

I’m talking about a real stevia product, not Truvia. Stevia is an herbal plant that belongs to the Asteraceae family. The stevia plant has been used for over 1,500 years by the Guaraní people of Brazil and Paraguay. It’s really a great, health-promoting choice when you buy a high-quality, pure stevia product. Make sure to buy stevia without additives and one that has been less processed. I recommend green stevia as the best option.

Raw Honey

Raw honey is a pure, unfiltered and unpasteurized sweetener made by bees from the nectar of flowers. Unlike processed honey, raw honey does not get robbed of its incredible nutritional value and health powers. It has been scientifically proven to help with allergies, diabetes, sleep problems, coughs and wound healing. Look for a local beekeeper to source your raw honey. This makes it even more likely to help with seasonal allergies.

Monk Fruit

Monk fruit, also called luo han guo, has been used as a sweetener for centuries, and after many years being only available overseas, it’s recently become easier to find in grocery stores in the United States. Monk fruit contains compounds that, when extracted, are natural sweeteners 300–400 times sweeter than cane sugar — but with no calories and no effect on blood sugar.  Just make sure that the monk fruit product you’re purchasing doesn’t contain any GMO-derived erythritol or other unhealthy additives.


Final Thoughts on Erythritol

Once erythritol enters your body, it’s rapidly absorbed in the small intestine with only about 10 percent entering the colon while the other 90 percent is excreted in the urine. It essentially goes through your system untouched with zero metabolization. Many manufacturers and consumers think this is great because that means no added calories or sugar to your diet, but what about it is really healthy or natural? Certainly nothing if it’s man-made from genetically modified corn products.

Even if it’s not GMO, its ghost passage through the body doesn’t signal any feelings of satiety and can easily lead to overeating. Also, let’s not forget the possible gastrointestinal distress, headaches and allergic reactions.

When we eat or drink anything, we ideally want it to go to work for us and encourage our overall health and well-being. Erythritol might have some benefits, but I just don’t think it does enough good for the human body. You’re much better off choosing a more natural, health-promoting sweetener, like raw honey, in small amounts.

Read Next: The 5 Worst Artificial Sweeteners


From the sound of it, you might think leaky gut only affects the digestive system, but in reality it can affect more. Because Leaky Gut is so common, and such an enigma, I’m offering a free webinar on all things leaky gut. Click here to learn more about the webinar.

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20 Comments

  1. Effie on

    I am taking homeopathic medicines and I need to find sugar-free, organic, non-toxic (no-mint! flavored) chewing gum. Your thoughts?

    Reply
  2. Cyndi Luman on

    I just recently started to use Trivia single packs. By the second pack I started to have headaches. By the seventh pack, I started to eat and eat nothing would satisfy my hunger.

    I came across this arrival and am so glad I did. It explained everything that was happening to me. I never get headaches, or over eat. I am a diabetic since 2001. I have always used sweet n low or spends.

    I am about to read the 5 worse sweetness. I can’t wait to see what it has to say.

    Thank you for your article on Erythitol it helped me tremendously.

    Sincerely
    Cyndi Luman
    Abilene, TX
    8-5-2017

    Reply
  3. Christie on

    I came across this article because I am looking for how to DIY stevia baking blend. The one I have by NuNaturals has stevia, maltodextrin, dextrin fiber, oat fibernand acacia, guar and xanthan gums. Can you comment on these ingredients?

    ANd if anyone can say what proportions to use, I will be grateful. The use is 3/4 cup of the blend instead of 1 cup of sugar.

    Reply
  4. Dylan on

    Stevia is a nightshade, not recommended on autoimmune protocol diets, so seems odd that you wouldn’t mention that it can trigger IBS symptoms.

    Reply
    • Healthy Is Unprocessed NATURAL Food on

      I have grown stevia many times, and no one in our family even likes it from the plant itself so I stopped growing it. We eat a LOT of natural things so it is not a matter of developing a taste for it.

      Reply
    • Daniel Ashmore on

      I agree almost all of the points listed in here are just wrong. Their is such little evidence suggesting any negative sides of GMO food. Of you’re allergic, don’t eat it. If you have IBS. Don’t eat it.

      Fortunately we are not fly’s. We are much bigger with completely different anatomy and physiology. Its easy to avoid eating it with other sweeners and as for overeating, their is also little evidence for this point and most people using the sweetener are counting calories anyway.

      Reply
  5. Healthy Is Unprocessed NATURAL on

    I tried erythritol in coconut ice cream which had other “healthy” ingredients- no artificial sweeteners other than that. I am EXTREMELY picky with what I will eat and tried this out.

    Within a half hour I had a headache, nausea, and got the runs in a major way. I felt AWFUL.

    That was enough for me.

    This article just confirmed what I already experienced.
    Thanks for writing it.

    Reply
    • jon on

      A company called KAL. Y ou can find it at some health food stores or online at amazon. It comes with a serving spoon that’s about a 32nd of a teaspoon. I love it.

      Reply
  6. Kendra on

    HEllo dr axe , I have to say I do disagree with you on the comment about erithrytol not satisfying the body , I would agree that by itself it would not be very satisfying indeed, but I use about 2 tbs in a chocolate mug cake recipe and it’s the only sweetener that didn’t make the cake taste bitter . So for me on my diet erithrytol seems to be a good addition since I’m on keto and count every carb , even stevia contains carbs that I have to count so I’m glad I have an alternative for baking at least .

    Reply
  7. Christopher on

    Funny, ’cause, with all the people I’ve asked, I’ve never come across any complaints of “gastrointestinal distress, headaches and allergic reactions”.

    What value does it have? MY personal observation is that, there is NO “RUSH” whatsoever, when eating anything sweetened with Erythritol, so you taste a “cool” sweetness but without the feeling of “Wow, dude… I could eat more of that!” Result? A kind of “what’s the point of that” feeling.

    In the end, I don’t like becoming a slave to any man-made, white crystalline powders, and so its use is extremely limited. Some value if going keto, possibly.

    My recommendation is to use modest amounts of other NATURAL sweeteners like raw honey and maple syrup, bananas etc. and learn to cut down on your level of sweetness needed.

    Reply
    • Justin Hunt on

      Your personal experiences don’t matter. The side effects are fairly well established by peer reviewed research articles. Here is one such example:

      Gastrointestinal tolerance of erythritol and xylitol ingested in a liquid. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2007) 61, 349–354.

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18535548

      And there are many others.

      Reply
  8. Grace on

    I’m very allergic to erythromycin & was just wondering if the sweetener, erythritol, was a relative. I don’t want to kill myself with it, no matter how well it works.

    Reply
  9. Justin Hunt on

    What is your rationale on the difference between erythritol produced from GMO cornstarch and non-GMO cornstarch? Even though the DNA is changed in the base ingredient, it doesn’t effect the chemical structure of the final product. Erythritol is erythritol, doesn’t matter how it’s made unless there is some kind of contaminant. (This coming from a graduate student and Dietetic intern who is doesn’t support the use of GMOs)

    Reply
  10. Starved because everything kills something on

    We should also avoid chocolate, garlic, onions, coffee, avocados, grapes, peaches, macadamia nuts etc, because they are dogicides. They kill dogs, so they are harmful to humans. Right…?

    Nothing destroys credibility like stupid logical arguments.

    Reply
  11. Lola on

    This article honestly made me so frustrated I wanted to scream. It is so frustrating to see people misunderstand what GMOs are and what they mean for health. The word “natural” in no way whatsoever always equals healthy. Things that are man-made in no way whatsoever always mean “unhealthy.” Many medications that save lives are man-made. Many natural materials such as corn starch can be rather unhealthy.

    Its sickening to see these buzzwords thrown around to scare people and elicit a response from them when they don’t fully understand biochemistry, and to in turn turn them unnecessarily away from something that could be an excellent diet ingredient. I urge everyone reading this to educate yourself on what a GMO is, and why they are in fact a positive thing. Do not be afraid. Please educate yourselves and don’t let articles like this scare you. I can assure you this is not 100% scientifically sound. And trust me, I’m quite scientifically competent.

    Reply

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