Q: What is erythritol? It’s an ingredient in a recipe for scones that I found online. It seems to be an artificial sweetener of some sort, but not one that I’ve ever heard of before. Is it one of the old ones, masquerading under a new name? Is it safe?
Answer: Erythritol is neither artificial nor new. And rather than masquerading, it’s going under its chemical name. It is based on erythrose, a small, natural sugar. And it is naturally found in fruits and fermented foods.
The ol on the end means that it is a sugar alcohol. There’s no alcohol in it, just two extra hydrogens. But that means that we don’t burn it for calories the way we do sugar.
Most sugar alcohols (sorbitol, xylitol, etc.) are not digested, so they are used in low-calorie foods. But most of them go on through us to the large intestine. Bacteria there use them, grow, and can make gas. They also pull extra water into the intestine. We feel the effects of that water on the way out, as diarrhea. So any food that has more than 5 grams of sugar alcohol must show the amount in the Nutrition Facts box on the label.
But erythritol is slightly different. According to the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, most of it goes out through our urine. It’s not broken down or used by us or the bacteria, just in one end and out the other. At very high doses there might be some side effects, but not the way we would usually use it.
So, yes, it’s a low-calorie sweetener, but not an artificial or invented one. It is not nearly as likely as other sugar alcohols to cause diarrhea or nausea. It tastes much like sugar, without some of the aftertaste of other sweeteners. It has very few calories and won’t make your scones dry out as some sweeteners do. And since bacteria don’t use it, it won’t promote tooth decay.
It’s sold under various names — Swerve, Zerose, maybe more — and is sometimes blended with stevia under the Truvia brand. You can order it pure online.
Mary A. Keith, a licensed dietitian and health agent at Hillsborough County Extension, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.