The Erythritol Sugar Free Trend: A Sweet Experiment

22. August 2017

The benefits of erythritol are almost too good to be true: it has almost no calories, and affects neither the blood sugar level nor the taste. Studies show however that erythritol potentially has a negative effect on the metabolism.

“Barely any calories, blood glucose stays down: these are the properties of an almost unknown sweetener” or “With ‘Xucker’ one can snack without consuming sugar” are two of the headlines in various newspapers. When consumers want to abstain from sucrose, on account of media reports they are increasingly turning to erythritol. For these purchasers, the previously unknown molecule at first thought appears to be a good alternative.

Many desirable qualities

Erythritol is the name given to meso-1,2,3,4-butantetrol, that is a sugar alcohol. Today it is mainly biotechnologically derived from sucrose or glucose.

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Erythritol in crystalline form WikimediaCommons, Thomas Kniess, CC BY SA 4.0

Meanwhile, some studies have shown that erythritol is physiologically safe for humans. From a medical-pharmaceutical viewpoint, the sugar substitute even has advantages. It does not affect blood glucose and insulin levels. While household sugar has a caloric impact of about 400 kilocalories (kcal) per 100 grams, for erythritol this figure is only 20 kcal. Carious bacteria do not metabolise the substance.

Moreover, the molecule shows no unpleasant effects, as are known to occur with other sugar alcohols. While sorbitol, maltitol, lactitol and isomalt carry with them a low digestive tolerance, the threshold for erythritol is comparatively high at about one gram per kilogram of body weight. Since erythritol is largely absorbed by the small intestine and excreted by the kidneys, it rarely leads to flatulence and diarrhoea. According to data from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), non-alcoholic beverages with a maximum of 1.6 percent of the sugar alcohol do not have laxative effects.

Erythritol, as opposed to stevia or aspartame, does not influence taste. Due to having a lower sweetness measure of 70 percent when measured relative to household sugar, commercial recipes have to be modified. This factor also applies to sorbitol (50 percent sweetness), mannitol (30 to 50 percent) or isomalt (50 to 60 percent).

No clear advantage recognised

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Meghan B. Azad © ResearchGate

However the joy of almost calorie-free sweetness lasts only briefly. Meghan B. Azad, cell biologist at the George & Fay Yee Center for Healthcare Innovation in the Canadian city of Winnipeg wanted to know whether sweeteners, that is to say sugar substitutes, really are of no consequence to the body. She did, it must be stated, not explicitly study erythritol. Her results can nonetheless be inferred to be relevant to erythritol as well.

Within the scope of a meta-analysis, her team found seven randomised controlled trials involving 1,003 participants and 30 cohort studies involving 405,907 participants. The follow-up periods in median terms were six months (RCTs) and ten years (cohorts).

“RCTs do not show any clear advantage when using non-nutritive sweeteners in weight reduction, and observation data suggests that regular consumption is even associated with an increased BMI and cardiometabolic risk”, Azad writes. Consumers have the sense that they are feeding themselves healthily. They no longer pay attention to quantities. For example, foodstuffs contain fat as a source of calorie in addition to sugar substitutes.

“Not a substance that we simply expell”

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Katie C. Hootman © ResearchGate

In addition to these psychological effects, Katie C. Hootman from Cornell University, Ithaca, found indications that erythritol – contrary to previous assumptions – is an integral part of the body’s metabolism.

 The basis of her work was the observation that three out of four people beginning US American higher education gained weight in the first year of higher education. The explanation is not surprising. Young people then often move into their first independent dwelling. They cook less often, preferring to buy fast foods or convenience foods. Until now, researchers have not found a biomarker for the risk of initial obesity. Having one would be important in order to intervene early.

Professor Dr. Karsten Hiller from the Technical University of Braunschweig (Germany) as part of Hootmans assignment examined blood samples from all subjects over a year multiple times. He employed the gas chromatography-mass spectrometry(GC-MS) technique. Hiller was interested in the so-called metabolome, that is to say the totality of all metabolic processes occurring on a molecular basis. At the same time, phenotypic characteristics and HbA1c levels of the students were recorded. The team was successful: erythritol was found in the study population whose weight had increased markedly. The molecule could be suitable for use as a biomarker, since – as is well known – association does not automatically lead to causality.

Nevertheless, the following result is scientifically irrefutable: through the use of glucose which had previously been marked with the stable carbon isotope 13C, it was able to be proven that our body actually produces erythritol. “Erythritol is not a substance that we simply excrete in the end”, Hiller says. “It has an effect on our metabolism. This stands in contrast to all previous assumptions”. Using the isotopic method, he now wants to investigate all metabolic pathways associated with erythritol, in order to understand the role played by this sugar alcohol in weight gain. This will then also indicate whether the option of externally supplied erythritol needs to be reassessed.

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Pharmaceutics, Research


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