Erythritol – the Coming Alternative to Simple Sugars

July 14, 2010 in Diabetes, Diabetic Menu Item, Nutrition, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

The fact of the matter is, it looks bad for High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) in the soft drink industry, and more slowly, it may be displaced in the myriad of other foods where it is found. A new darling is coming, and its main ingredient is Erythritol.

A year ago a Google search on the term “Natural Sweetener” brought up in the first paid position a web site on High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS). The web site put forth an argument, given through an advertizing campaign that appeared in many forms of media at the time, that HCFS was an all-natural sweetener just like sugar was, because, like sugar, it was made from natural plants. Also, the argument was given that it acted no differently from sugar when it entered the body and bloodstream.  The American public rejected this big campaign. Documentaries like the Academy Award Nominated “Food Inc” and “King Corn”, along with many books and blogs, have exposed HFCS, especially in soft drinks, as a probable major contributor to the obesity and diabetes epidemics. Research reported in these pages has provided evidence of serious consequences of the use and overuse of HFCS.

This year a Google search on the same term brings up a new cast of characters, “Discover Natural TruVia”, “Go Natural with PureVia”, and “Zerose Natural Sweetener.” These same three trademarks also come up in the first three expensive paid advertizing positions at the top of the Google search page when you search on Erythritol.

This is a responsible action on the part of Cargill, who sells Zerose, a new name they recently coined for their Erythritol.  It is a responsible move for the owners of this very large, privately held corporation, because Erythritol has the most attractive profile as a widely useable sweetener among all the sugar alcohols.  It can replace lost profits from HFCS. It is also a responsible move for public heath, because Erythritol yields close to zero calories when metabolized (thus the name “Zerose” – rhymes with sucrose, fructose, and other “-ose” sweeteners). It is Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS list of the FDA), and has been used by humans for thousands of years. It works well for diabetics, and does not cause tooth decay. When you go to the Purevia and Truvia websites, you learn about a new zero-calorie sweetener that uses extracts from the Stevia plant, which is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Stevia is not on the GRAS list.

Products using Erythritol are not only substitutes for the empty calories and rapid blood-sugar spiking attributes of HFCS, but also as a substitute for sugar’s close relatives: honey, brown sugar, molasses, fructose, maple sugar, powdered sugar and agave. The message is getting out that any of these caloric sweeteners can have serious health consequences. Based upon good research the American Heart Association has published its recommendation to decrease simple sugar intake to 100 calories for women and 150 for men – per day.

The public is slowly beginning to understand that the few trace minerals found in agave, molasses, brown sugar, raw sugar and honey are not enough to matter nutritionally; those nutrients can easily be obtained in the other foods in the diet. So the point is: Do not think of these sweeteners as nutritious. They’re simple blood sugar spiking molecules that offer little to no nutritional benefit. This is why they are often described as offering only “empty calories”.

Both honey and agave have 60 – 64 calories per tablespoon; which is compared to 45 for table sugar. Because they are a little sweeter than sugar, it brings the calories to about the same as sugar, in order to achieve the same sweetness. Remember, if you’re watching your sugar intake, agave and honey are not ‘sugar savers.’

Agave and high fructose corn syrup both have proportionately more fructose, which has been linked with more insulin-resistance, more unhealthy visceral fat and a greater risk of developing heart disease and diabetes. Now new research has been added to fructose’s unflattering nutrition profile. It has been reported in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology that fructose may be increasing the risk of developing high blood pressure. The study showed that consuming an equivalent of 2.5 cans of non-diet soda per day or the equivalent amount of fructose from other foods (usually in processed cookies, jam, fruit punch, candy and chocolates) increased the risk of hypertension by at least 30 percent. Hypertension is a serious problem because it can affect the blood vessels and is the leading risk factor for heart disease and kidney disease.

The Corn Refiners Association and the American Beverage Association say that the study was flawed. I say, maybe we better cut back on all forms of sugar and find out the ‘verified answer’ later. I’m not really ready to put my blood pressure, heart health and diabetes risk in the hands of either association (hello vested interests.)

Most nutritionists, including myself, were surprised by the fructose/hypertension link. The researchers don’t know the mechanism by which the blood pressure is boosted. But some think that the fructose may make the body absorb sodium more readily. Another theory is that fructose intake may also increase levels of uric acid, which has been shown to contribute to high blood pressure. Either way, you may want to be aware of how much high fructose corn syrup or agave are in your food.

If you have diabetes these are all sweeteners that you should be very careful with: HFCS heads the list, followed by fructose, powdered sugar, table sugar, brown sugar, honey, agave, molasses, and maple syrup.

If you’re one of the crowd who is lightening up on the sweet stuff, you may discover that there are foods that you’ve become accustomed to being sweetened. What can you do? Certainly, there are a number of zero-calorie choices; unfortunately, many have never existed in nature.

Because of Dr. Grandpa’s diagnosis of diabetes, over six years ago, we had to face that very question. Dr. Grandpa had/has a sweet tooth (O.K., He probably has more than one.)  He’s not alone; most people enjoy sweetness. So Dr. Grandpa could enjoy sweetness, without affecting his blood sugar, started using an Erythritol-based sweetener. Unlike other sugar alcohols or polyols, Erythritol is well tolerated in the digestive tract. It essentially has no calories (0.2 calories per gram) and is perfect for diabetics who don’t want to increase blood sugar or affect insulin. Erythritol has a very clean taste – like regular table sugar – just sweet. It doesn’t cause tooth decay. It responds like sugar in baking and can be boiled, baked and cooked.

Erythritol is only 70 – 80 % as sweet as sugar, many Erythritol-based sweeteners contain other natural sweeteners such as Stevia. If you’re looking for something to give you a little sweetness, you may want to consider the Erythritol-based sweeteners that look and taste like sugar – just sweet, without the ability to cause the problems of sugar.

Now that Truvia and Purevia are being so widely advertized, and Coke and Pepsi are using Erythritol and Stevia extract, there is a huge new market for replacing simple calorie-laden sugars with Erythritol, either alone or enhanced by something else healthy that is intensely sweet. In my opinion, life would be bland without a little sweetness here and there. Tonight I’m making my homemade whole-wheat no-sugar ‘shortcake’ topped with blue berries and raspberries (with a touch of Erythritol) and non-fat Greek Yogurt (it also sweetened up a bit with a little Erythritol).  There are going to be so many ways creative people can use healthy, zero-calorie sweeteners in reshaping our food environment away from the calorie-laden, blood sugar spiking, and addictive caloric sweeteners.

Sweetness without sweeteners.

Dr. Grandma's muffins are made with no added sugar.

Breakfast, snacks or desserts - whole wheat with no sugar.

An 'any day' treat.