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Erythritol: Is This ‘Healthy’ Sweetener the Real Deal?

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Erythritol - Dr. Axe

Erythritol is now one of the most popular “natura,l” zero-calorie sweeteners available. But how healthy is erythritol really?

Because it’s seemingly less problematic than the controversial aspartame, it makes sense that more and more people now choose erythritol in hopes of decreasing the amount of added sugar and calories they consume.

You’ll commonly find it in products like low-sugar, sugar-free and even no-carb foods, and while it’s generally safe, there are some common erythritol side effects to consider as well. For example, when used in large amounts, erythritol consumption can potentially cause negative reactions like nausea and stomach upset.

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 — studies show that even though erythritol travels through your body, it doesn’t get metabolized. Another issue is that it’s often made from GMO cornstarch.

So is erythritol a safe and smart sugar substitute? Below we’ll cover both the pros and cons of using  it in place of other sweeteners.

What Is Erythritol?

Erythritol is a natural sugar alcohol, just like xylitol. It is rapidly absorbed in the small intestine, but poorly metabolized, and may not carry the same health benefits as other natural sweeteners — such as monk fruit or raw honey.

Erythritol was first discovered in 1848 by a Scottish chemist named John Stenhouse. Japan has been using erythritol since the early 1990s in candies, jellies, jams, chocolate (including the common chocolate bar), yogurt, beverages and as a natural sugar substitute. It’s gained popularity in the U.S. more recently.

As of 1997, erythritol has the status of generally recognized as safe by the FDA. The food industry and consumers love it because it has a similar sweet taste as sugar, but it’s noncaloric and does not raise blood sugar levels.

Nutrition Facts

Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that chemically have characteristics of both sugars and alcohols. There are zero calories and zero carbs in erythritol.

But to be clear, just because a sweetener doesn’t have calories and doesn’t appear to affect blood sugar, it does not mean that it’s necessarily good for your health.

Technically this product is a four-carbon sugar alcohol or polyol that contains about 60 percent to 80 percent of the sweetness of table sugar.

“Sugar alcohols” have nothing to do with cocktails, since they don’t contain ethanol (aka alcohol) like alcoholic beverages. Other sugar alcohols include sorbitol/glucitol, lactitol, isomalt, maltitol, mannitol, glycerol/glycerin and xylitol.

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.

Sources

Fruits like watermelon, pear and grapes naturally have minor amounts of erythritol, as do mushrooms and some fermented foods like cheese, wine, beer and sake.

If you’re a label reader (and I hope you are!), you may have noticed alternative sweeteners like sucralose (Splenda®) and erythritol becoming more prominent in ingredient lists lately, especially in energy/sports drinks and chocolate bars.

Erythritol is now commonly added to many packaged foods, snacks and drink items. Some examples of where you’ll find it include in:

  • zero calorie and/or diet sodas and drinks
  • sports and energy drinks
  • sugar-free gums and mints and other sweets (such as hard and soft candies, flavored jam, and jelly spreads)
  • chocolate products
  • frostings
  • dairy desserts (such as ice cream, other frozen desserts, and puddings)
  • packaged grain-based desserts (such as cakes and cookies)
  • even some medications

Erythritol is commonly used in combination with artificial sweeteners to improve the taste of products. In addition to providing a sweet taste, sugar alcohols in food add bulk and texture, help retain moisture, and prevent browning.

Because erythritol is not hygroscopic (does not absorb moisture from the air), it’s popular in certain baked products because it doesn’t dry them out.

How It’s Made

As explained above, 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.

The type that is 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.”

Types

Erythritol is available as a granulated or powdered natural zero calorie sweetener. Examples of such products include Zsweet and Swerve (which is non-GMO certified and sourced from France).

Powdered erythritol is often used like confectioner’s sugar and to have “‘no bitter or chemical aftertaste.”

When you purchase organic erythritol, this ensures the product cannot be made from a GMO source, such as cornstarch.

Erythritol vs. Stevia

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.

Is stevia and erythritol the same thing? No, and some health experts have stated that they personally prefer stevia leaf extract because it doesn’t spike blood sugar and is associated with some health benefits.

According to research studies, these may include improvements in cholesterol, blood pressure and even some types of cancer.

Overall stevia seems to be a health-promoting choice when you buy a high-quality, pure stevia leaf extract product. Make sure to buy stevia without additives.

Green stevia is said to be one of the best options if you can find it.

Xylitol vs. Erythritol

Both of these products are sugar alcohols (also called reduced-calorie sweeteners). The main difference is that xylitol does contain some calories (it’s not zero-calorie like erythritol) but less than sugar.

Xylitol also has a small impact on blood sugar levels while erythritol does not.

It is found naturally in some fruits and vegetables and has a similar taste, texture and volume as sugar. One drawback to using xylitol is that it can cause diarrhea in some people, especially when used in large amounts.

This is one reason why some people prefer erythritol.

On the other hand, benefits associated with xylitol include improvements in blood sugar management, dental health and even immunity against certain infections.

Possible Side Effects and Dangers

Are sugar alcohols bad for you? And what are the dangers of erythritol specifically?

Below are the major concerns with sugar alcohols including erythritol:

1. Usually Genetically Modified (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.”

Although there are non-GMO varieties available, much of the erythritol used in foods and beverages today is derived from cornstarch from genetically modified corn.

While this is still a controversial topic with ongoing research, animal studies have linked consumption of GMOs with potential problems such as infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system.

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 can become even more troublesome for your health. Possible side effects of aspartame for example may include anxiety, depression, short-term memory loss, fibromyalgia, weight gain, fatigue, brain tumors and more.

3. Can Cause Gastrointestinal Problems

Sugar alcohols pass through your body essentially untouched, much like dietary fiber does. This is why they can produce abdominal gas, bloating, and diarrhea in some individuals, as they are not completely absorbed by the body and are fermented by bacteria in the large intestine.

Some of the most common erythritol side effects are undesirable gastrointestinal side effects that children are especially susceptible to.

Unfortunately, the gastrointestinal issues don’t necessarily stop at some rumbling in your stomach. Diarrhea is a well-known common erythritol side effect, although less so than with xylitol.

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. Diarrhea might sound harmless, but it can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalances and malnutrition.

When consumption is high (50 grams or more per day) then digestive upset, including gas, cramping, bloating, stomachaches and diarrhea become even more likely. One study specifically showed that the intake of 50 grams of erythritol caused stomach rumbling and nausea.

For this reason, it’s important to keep intake in moderation to help prevent negative side effects and consider scaling back if digestive issues occur. Research typically shows that up to 0.45 grams of erythritol per pound of body weight is well-tolerated and safe for most people, but intake should not exceed that amount.

4. May Trigger Allergic Reactions

Although very rare, erythritol can cause an allergic skin reaction in some people, as demonstrated in a study published in 2000 in the Journal of Dermatology.

A 24-year-old woman developed a severe rash and “wheals” all over her entire body after having one glass of a beverage sweetened with erythritol. A wheal, often called a welt or hives, is 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.

5. Not Safe for Dogs/Pets

Sugar alcohols shouldn’t be given to dogs because this can cause severe reactions. Even small amounts of sugar alcohols can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), seizures, liver failure or even death in dogs.

Symptoms of poisoning develop rapidly in dogs after ingesting sugar alcohols, usually within 15–30 minutes of consumption. Call your doctor if your pet has consumed any product containing sugar alcohols, such as gum, candy, etc.

Potential Benefits

1. It’s Sugar-Free and May Help With Weight Management

Fans of this sweetener mainly love it because of its lack of calories, which can be helpful for weight management.

Erythritol is also suitable for diabetics and people following the keto diet and other low-carb diets. Replacing sugar with erythritol while doing keto can help keep your carbs in check and aid in you staying in ketosis.

Related: Keto Sweeteners: What Are the Best vs. Worst?

2. Can Help Increase Satiety and Satisfaction

Some studies show that erythritol could influence the release of certain hormones in the gut and even slow the emptying of the stomach.

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.

3. Better for Teeth than Other Sweeteners

Studies have been mixed, but some say that erythritol can decrease plaque or even help prevent tooth decay because sugar alcohols do not react with plaque bacteria in the mouth in the way that sugar does.

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.

4. Possibly Has Antioxidant Effects

Some scientists claim that it might provide antioxidants to whoever ingests it. In one study conducted on diabetic rats, erythritol seemed to act as an antioxidant (to fight free radicals) and potentially offered protection again hyperglycemia-induced vascular damage.

How to Purchase and Use

Where can you buy erythritol? Look for it in health food stores, major grocery stores or online.

If you purchase a product that has erythritol, how do you know if it’s a GMO-free? The product needs to have a USDA Organic or a Non-GMO Project-certified insignia on the packaging.

Erythritol Substitutes/Alternatives:

Remember that many erythritol substitutes are available if you can’t find any, or prefer a different product. These include stevia and monk fruit, or honey, molasses and maple syrup if you don’t mind consuming actual sugar and calories.

  • Raw honey —  This 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 — This product is now recommended for the same reasons as stevia. It’s a fruit-derived sweetener that has been used for hundreds of years. Many find that it has a pleasant taste without bitterness. 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

  • Erythritol is a zero-calorie sweetener that is commonly man-made from genetically modified corn products.
  • Is erythritol safe? There are some side effects and potential dangers to consider. Even if it’s not GMO, it may also cause possible gastrointestinal distress and allergic reactions in certain individuals who may be sensitive to its effects.
  • Erythritol might have some health benefits, and non-GMO varieties do seem to be fine in moderation. Potential benefits include help managing blood sugar and weight, supporting dental health and providing antioxidant effects.
  • There are plenty of other natural, health-promoting sweeteners available that can also be used in moderation instead, such as stevia, monk fruit, and raw honey.
Josh Axe

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