Erythritol as a Sweetener

As I’ve mentioned in some earlier posts, I’ve started to use erythritol as a sweetener in those recipes where the aftertaste of an artificial sugar such as Splenda would affect the flavour.  I use it sparingly because erythritol is more expensive than sugar and Splenda.

We have access to two brands of pure erythritol in Canada: Now Foods and Organic Zero.  (Erythritol is also found in the sweetener brand, Truvia; however, it is mixed with stevia which I do not discuss here.)

So…what is erythritol?  Here is what I’ve found out through research.*

GENERAL INFORMATION

  1. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol from a family of sweetening agents also known as “polyols” that includes xylitol, mannitol, lactitol, and sorbitol.  These polyols occur naturally in small amounts in fruits and vegetables. Apparently, the only reason these sugars are called “sugar alcohols” is because the molecular structure resembles that of regular alcohol.
  2. Erythritol can be found in mushrooms, fruits such as pears, melons and grapes, and fermentation-derived foods such as wine, soy sauce, and cheese.
  3. Erythritol, when developed as a sweetener, is not considered artificial because it is made through the fermentation of the sugars found naturally in corn.
  4. Erythritol has the bulk, look, and texture of refined white sugar, but it is only 60–70% as sweet.
  5. Erythritol has been approved for use as a food additive in Canada, the United States, and throughout much of the world.

BENEFITS OF ERYTHRITOL

Virtually non-caloric: Erythritol has a caloric value of 0.2 kilocalories per gram (95% less than sugar and other carbohydrates).  Under labelling regulations in Canada and the United States, it is able to be listed as having 0 calories.

Non-glycemic: Erythritol does not raise blood sugar (plasma glucose or insulin levels); this makes it suitable for people who are diabetic or prediabetic.

More digestable than the other sugar alcohols: More than 90% of erythritol is absorbed in the small intestine so minimal amounts reach the large intestine.  It is in this part of the digestive tract where other sugar alcohols cause diarrhea, bloating, gas, and rumbling.

Does not cause tooth decay: Erythritol, like other polyols, is resistant to metabolism by oral bacteria which break down sugars and starches to produce acids which may lead to tooth enamel loss and cavity formation.

PROBLEMS OF ERYTHRITOL

Difficulties when used in baking: Sugar melts at 366° F; erythritol, at 250° F. This means that you will not be able to use erythritol for most baked products, such as cakes, cookies, and pies, that cook at high temperatures. I learned this the hard way while trying to make GF angel food cake with erythritol. At 350° F, a temperature that sugar would handle with ease, the erythritol boiled, bubbled over, and burnt my pan and stove.

Individual tolerance varies: Although erythritol is more digestable than the other sugar alcohols, every person has a different level of sensitivity.  Some sources suggest that it shouldn’t be used by people with irritable bowel syndrome. Since I have this condition but handle erythritol well, I suggest trying a small amount to see whether you will tolerate it.

Excessive consumption: The digestability of erythritol may be affected by the amount consumed at any one time.  If it is eaten in a quantity beyond one’s individual tolerance, it can cause diarrhea.

Long-term safety:  Erythritol has not been sold to the public as a sweetener until recently, and its use has a sweetener has not be studied in any intensive way.  It is going to take years to discover the long-term effects of erythritol, if there are any.

*Sources:

The Sugar Wars

Recently, I’ve had my consciousness raised about sugar.  It started with an April 13 article in the New York Times Magazine, entitled, “Is Sugar Toxic?” by Gary Taubes.  This article examined the current science around refined sugar use, metabolism, obesity, and disease, and the author concluded that, while there was no one answer to this question because we are complex biological beings, refined sugar should definitely be used in moderation.

I then had Shirley of the Gluten-Free Easily blog suggest to me that not all natural sweeteners spike blood glucose the way refined sugars do (the diabetic problem).  After some research I learned that I had been abysmally ignorant about the glycemic indexes (GI) of sugar alternatives. Claire, I said to myself, wake up and smell the sweeteners! 

Then I read a very useful post by Karina of the Gluten-Free Goddess blog about alternatives to refined sugars—a post that was followed by numerous comments that revealed a great deal of worry, upset, and confusion about all kinds of sugar use, including artificial sugars. I was struck by the number of people who had gone off artificial sugars and felt better.

So…where does all of this leave a gluten-sensitive, lactose intolerant, potentially diabetic dieter? 

First, the facts about refined sugar.  It is clear that refined sugar in our society is absolutely harmful when its use is measured in the aggregate. More and more folks are too heavy, if not obese, and many of those pounds are connected to caloric intake from sugar.  And obesity is 100% linked to diabetes, heart disease, other illnesses, and mortality.

Secondly, the facts about artificial sugars, particularly Splenda.  The comments on the Gluten-Free Goddess post suggest mixed physical reactions.  Some people have no problems using artificial sugar while others clearly do.  Are there other facts? A Google search shows lots of controversy as well as scientific studies that demonstrate that Splenda is not harmful. 

But I’ve noticed that science doesn’t always get it right. Do you remember the egg flip-flops?  “Eggs are good for you—no, eggs are bad for you—wait, eggs are now good for you again.” The more accurate scientific tools get, the more the nutritional experts can measure and discover new facts that can change earlier conclusions. Also, it can take years to find out results from the use of any substance—be it a food or drug.  It’s all very frustrating from a civilian point of view.

Then there are the words: natural, processed, and chemical, which swirl around us but don’t quite get pinned down. I know I get a warm, fuzzy feeling about the word natural and a not-so-nice feeling about the words processed and chemical

But I also know that natural isn’t always better. We could say that North Americans lived “more naturally” in 1900, but the average age of mortality then was 47.  Nor are processed or chemical always bad.  How many of us wouldn’t cook because it processes our food and alters its chemicals?  Or not take medications which are the result of chemical processes?

It’s a conundrum, rolled up in an enigma, and packaged like a puzzle.

The majority of people in North America are not plagued by the reactions to foods that affect those of us in the gluten-free community.  Are we just oddities then?  No, I think we’re like the canary in the coal mine.  We’re the indication to the rest of the world that there is something going on in our society and environment that isn’t good for the human gut.

Maybe it’s pollution or plastics or antibiotics or too much processed food or not enough protection against ozone or  ________. (Put in your theory.)  Or, most likely, there isn’t one simple answer.

So…what can a person do?  My solution: listen to my body, live and eat with moderation, and try to make the best decisions possible for myself, given available knowledge.

Because I have the metabolism of a snail on tranquillizers, I gain weight easily and lose it with difficulty. One of my decisions, which affects this blog, is that any true sweetener—be it brown sugar, stevia, dates, raisins, whatever—is more “toxic” for me than artificial sugar because it is high in calories. To be blunt: I’m more likely to die from being overweight than from eating artificial sugars.  

Splenda, which I tolerate well, enables me to eat, albeit sparingly, baked products that would otherwise be verboten.  A variety of foods and a feeling that I am not being completely deprived enable me to stick to a successful diet regime.  That regime is essential to my health.

So, I can’t take artificial sugar out of my recipes; otherwise, this blog would simply no longer be true to myself.  Nor would it be valid for those who share my health problems.

It’s a free world. 

But you’re not me, and may make decisions that are different than mine.  If you decide not to use artificial sugar, you can substitute any real sweetener that you prefer in this blog’s recipes.  I use Splenda which is a one-to-one substitute for regular sugar.  Just remember that every tablespoon of sugar or alternative sweetener is 1 point on both the Points and PointsPlus Weight Watcher plans, and add the additional point(s) to the per serving point values.

Yours deep in the puzzle,

Claire