If you’re trying to reduce sugar in your diet, erythritol is a fabulous ‘next generation’ calorie-free and carb-free sugar substitute. And crucially for me – it’s a naturally-derived product. If you’ve read any of my recipes, you’ll know that I use it loads when I’m cooking something low-carb or keto. So read on to learn the basics – about exactly what it is and where to get it – and on its health profile and how to use it.
– What is Erythritol? How come it’s calorie & carb-free?
– What does Erythritol taste like?
– What’s Erythritol’s healthiness profile?
– Non-(Human) Health-Related Considerations for Erythritol
– Where do I buy Erythritol?
– How do I cook with Erythritol?
– Links to some of my best published low-carb recipes using Erythritol
What is Erythritol? How Come it’s Calorie & Carb-Free?
Erythritol is 70% as sweet as sugar, and many low-carbers use it as a sugar substitute.
Although its scientific-sounding name may suggest to you otherwise, erythritol is NOT an artificial sweetener. It’s found naturally in fruit and vegetables e.g. melons, grapes, pears and mushrooms. And it’s also naturally present in honey, wine and fermented foods. For instance, Sukrin is an erythritol brand I’ve often used in the UK. It’s derived from non-GM corn starch using a natural fermentation process.
Chemically, erythritol is a type of polyol, classed as a sugar alcohol. (You may be more familiar with its family members – such as sorbitol, maltitol and xylitol – on ingredients labels). But if you haven’t studied chemistry, this designation can be a bit confusing, as it’s neither sugar, nor alcohol.
In fact, polyols – and therefore sugar alcohols including erythritol – are actually a form of carbohydrate with a chemical structure partially resembling sugar and partially resembling alcohol. Crucially, the human body can’t digest polyols efficiently, and so they are incompletely metabolised and absorbed by the body.
To use perhaps a more familiar analogy, think of fibre, which is also a type of carbohydrate that we can’t digest efficiently. That means that it passes through the body largely unabsorbed. So, similar to fibre then, we absorb fewer – or in the case of erythritol, no – calories and carbs from polyols. Meanwhile the calories and carbs in other types of carbohydrate like normal table sugar are essentially fully digested and absorbed. That adds to our energy intake, and affects the blood sugar response in our bodies.
As well as adding sweetness to dishes, erythritol and other sugar alcohols add bulk and texture, as sugar does. They also help retain moisture in foods. They neither cause nor prevent browning.
What Does Erythritol Taste Like?
Erythritol has a pleasant mildly sweet taste which I find very similar indeed to sugar. It has a slightly ‘cooling’ effect in the mouth. It does not have any of the bitter aftertaste associated with artificial sweeteners and some stevia products. It’s not overly sweet like artificial sweeteners.
What’s Erythritol’s Healthiness Profile?
The Sukrin website cites many professionals who all highly recommend erythritol as a sugar substitute. These include a Professor of Nutrition, a Norwegian medical doctor with a doctorate in nutrition, and several nutritionists and athletes.
I don’t know what, if any, relationship these professionals have with the Sukrin company. But the independent scientific reviews that I have read myself (and that I mention below), do seem to bear out erythritol’s benefits as a healthier natural substitute for sugar in the diet. And that – in combination with its complete lack of carbs and calories, and the fact it broadly behaves like sugar in cooking – is why I prefer to use it.
|Per 100g white, granulated product||Erythritol||Sugar|
|– of which sugars||0g||100g|
|– of which polyols/sugar alcohols||100g||0g|
Data sources: MyFitnessPal database & individual manufacturers’ websites for Sukrin, Swerve and MoJoMe
Differently to xylitol which I’ve written about before, erythritol is non-nutritive i.e. it is zero-calorie. (Meanwhile xylitol has some calories, about 40% those of sugar).
While the table above indicates that erythritol and sugar are both 100% carbs, the crucial difference is the type of carbs. For instance, it’s because different carbs behave differently in the body that many nutritional labels have an ‘of which sugars’ sub-category. And in the UK, fibre, although being a carb, is not included in the total carb count. It is always listed separately, as it does not count as net carbs for impact on blood sugar.
So in fact these numbers show that 100% of the carbs in erythritol are polyols. And as we’ve already seen, these behave differently to the carbs in sugar which are – well – 100% sugar of course!
Blood Sugar and Diabetes Management
As we’ve seen, after eating erythritol, it passes through the body to be excreted without any absorption of calories and carbs along the way. That means it has minimal or no impact on blood sugar or insulin, so diabetics can use it safely.
Conversely, sugar can cause a fast blood sugar spike, triggering an insulin rush in the body. That in turn can stimulate more of the calories being ingested from sugar to be laid down as fat. Or it can contribute to you eventually developing insulin resistance and/or type 2 diabetes.
Digestion & IBS
Erythritol has some other advantages over other sugar substitute polyols like xylitol, apart from being non-nutritive.
One crucial difference is that it’s easier to digest than other sugar alcohols (see section 9 in this review). In fact, its maximum no-effect dose for causing diarrhoea is the highest of all polyols. That means it’s unlikely to cause the stomach problems and laxative effects that some other sugar alcohols like xylitol may do. And that especially applies for those with irritable bowel syndrome.
Indeed, as erythritol is not fermented by microflora in the colon, you may tolerate it well if you’re on a low FODMAP diet – see section 2 here. (A low FODMAP diet involves restricting the groups of carbohydrates that are all either slowly absorbed – or not digested – in the small intestine).
Erythritol is generally accepted scientifically as acting as an antioxidant to mop up free-radicals in the body.
While sugar provides a growing medium for yeasts, eryhthritol does not. That means you can’t use it for baking bread successfully. But it may well be a good choice if you suffer from Candida Albicans.
Erythritol doesn’t cause tooth decay like sugar does. But it isn’t just a passive benefactor for your oral health. It also provides an active benefit through having an antibacterial effect in the mouth. Therefore it helps reduce significantly the number of bacteria in the mouth that are associated with dental caries.
A scientific review in 2016 concluded that erythritol is even more effective for mouth health than xylitol, which is already used in many toothpastes, chewing gums and mouthwashes.
Non-(Human) Health-Related Considerations for Erythritol
Safe for Dogs
It Isn’t Cheap
Erythritol is significantly more expensive than sugar. It seems that that has a lot to do with demand and supply. As a ‘next generation’ sweetener, its popularity has grown quickly. But efficient large-scale production methods have yet to be pinned down.
As with so many other dietary choices, when deciding to use sugar, or sugar substitutes, or just to wean yourself off sweet things altogether – it’s a question of weighing up all the alternatives, their availability, your own economic situation, and the priority or not you place on healthy eating and/or including sweet foods in your diet.
Here’s some examples of prices in January 2018 in just four countries where low-carb eating is a phenomenon:
- In the UK, 250g of granulated Sukrin can be bought for £4.97 on Amazon.co.uk and £5.85 on Sukrin’s website.
- In the US, a 12oz bag of Swerve granulated costs around US$9.99 bought on Amazon.com.
- Naturally Sweet in Australia sell all sorts of natural sugar alternatives. 500g of their own brand erythritol is AUS$11.50.
- And in South Africa, 30 x 5g (total 150g) of erythritol sticks for tea and coffee are R37.28 from the online store of low-carb food specialist MoJoMe. Or you can buy 250g of Woolworths’ brand erythritol for R59.99 from their online store.
Where Do I buy Erythritol?
In the UK, as a ‘next generation’ alternative to sugar, erythritol isn’t yet very well-known. But brands like Sukrin and NKD Living are easily available online. And so are Swerve in the US, Naturally Sweet in Australia, and MoJoMe and Woolworths brands in South Africa.
You don’t yet see erythritol in shops much in the UK. The Sukrin website claims I’d find it at my local largest Sainsbury’s and Tesco supermarkets, for instance. But I’ve never found it in either of them, and it isn’t available from these retailers online either. International chain health food store Holland and Barratt doesn’t stock it – at least, not in the UK. But I’ve found it in larger independent health food stores like Infinity Foods in Brighton
How Do I Cook With Erythritol?
To date, I’ve mostly used the brand Sukrin, partly because I’ve been able to find it in some shops in the UK. It’s also and partly because Sukrin conveniently comes in three different sugar substitute types – white granulated, powdered (like icing/confectioners’ sugar), and soft brown.
Swerve in the US also comes in granulated or powdered versions. It means you can select the version that is nearest to the type of sugar that you are substituting it for in your particular recipe.
How should I convert recipes when substituting erythritol for sugar?
Granulated Sukrin contains a little added natural stevia. You can use it 1:1 as a substitute for sugar for sweetening drinks, and baking and icing cakes. It looks exactly like white sugar, and you can use it spoon-for-spoon and weight-for-weight in drinks and recipes exactly like sugar. So there’s no need for any tricky and inexact recipe conversions as there are in some other elements of low-carb baking.
On their packet pictured below, NKD Living say to use 130g erythritol to every 100g of sugar it’s replacing. That’s consistent with it being 70% as sweet as sugar. But I’ve always substituted it 1:1, with good results structurally and sweetness-wise in the finished dish. It’s really up to you as to how sweet you prefer things to be.
So in most cooking, I’ve found that erythritol usually behaves like sugar. The end-results tend to be the same, or at least very similar.
One thing to note is that you can’t use erythritol in leavened bread-making, as yeast can’t feed on it. On a low-carb way of eating, I’m not making leavened bread with wheat flour at the moment anyway, so no problem for me there.
Despite the fact that pure erythritol doesn’t promote browning, Swerve also claim that you can brown and caramelise their product just like sugar. So you could use it on top of a crème brûlée for instance. I’m taking it this has been achieved through Swerve adding oligosaccharides to their product.
Links to Some of My Best Published Recipes That Include Erythritol as a Sugar Replacement
Here are some delicious recipes of my own that use erythritol with excellent results. And they may give you some ideas for using it as a substitute in your own favourite recipes: