If you’re just starting keto, eliminating carbs and sugar can be daunting. You want the benefits of the keto diet, but you may be daydreaming about the occasional reward or your favorite treat.
Conventional desserts and sweets can kick you out of ketosis and hinder your weight loss goals, but that doesn’t mean you can never indulge in treats.
The good news is there are plenty of healthy sugar substitutes which give access to a whole world of keto-friendly baked goods and delicious indulgences, without having to worry about the carb count.
Erythritol is one of these options. It’s a low-calorie, very-low-carb sugar alcohol that’s two-thirds as sweet as sugar and one of the most popular keto-friendly sweeteners.
Keep reading to learn what happens when you eat erythritol, where it fits in your low-carb diet, possible health benefits, risks, and side effects.
Erythritol is a type of food additive called sugar alcohol. This name can be misleading, as it’s not precisely a sugar, nor is it alcohol in the way most people think of it.
As opposed to regular sugar, most sugar alcohols don’t significantly spike your blood sugar, and they don’t contain ethanol (drinking alcohol). Another name for sugar alcohols like erythritol is polyols.
Erythritol was first discovered over 150 years ago, but it wasn’t produced commercially until the 1990s[*].
Erythritol has 65-70% of the sweet taste of table sugar, but unlike sugar, erythritol does not contribute to cavities or tooth decay[*].
Erythritol is an ideal sugar alternative on the ketogenic diet.
It’s well-tolerated with few side effects, has close to zero net carbs, and even has some potential health benefits.
A 1994 Japanese study examined the effects of erythritol on blood glucose levels, insulin levels, and other parameters[*].
The study found that erythritol didn’t affect glucose, insulin, cholesterol, triglycerides, or electrolytes.
In other words, erythritol is keto-friendly because it doesn’t spike your blood sugar or insulin.
Carbs, Net Carbs, and Calories
According to United States FDA labeling requirements, erythritol has about 0.2 calories per gram, which translates to 20 calories per 100 grams. Other countries label it as zero-calorie.
The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how fast your body can produce glucose from a carb source. Anything under 55 is considered low-GI. The glycemic index of erythritol is effectively zero, which is another reason it’s an appropriate choice for low-carb keto treats[*].
The Sweetness Trap
Eating sweet treats frequently can perpetuate cravings and addictive patterns, which means you don’t break old habits.
Evidence suggests that people who use sugar-free artificial sweeteners have more trouble losing weight. Even when the sweeteners don’t have a direct effect on blood sugar and insulin, researchers believe they could increase the likelihood of a carb relapse, or cause people to compensate in other ways[*].
That doesn’t mean you should never consume erythritol, but it’s helpful to keep it in perspective. If you have worked hard to develop a healthier relationship with desserts and other sweets, you can reward yourself with an occasional indulgence.
Just don’t eat it every day and in large amounts.
You’re probably interested in erythritol as a safe option for making keto-compliant desserts and not as a health supplement.
But at the same time, who would say no to added health benefits? It turns out there are multiple ways erythritol might improve your health.
Oral Health and Cavity Prevention
Sugar alcohols like erythritol have an excellent track record for cavity prevention. That’s the reason they’re often used in gums and sugar-free candies.
Erythritol works primarily by suppressing biofilm formation. Biofilm is a colony of bacteria that can form on your teeth and gums.
Over time, biofilms can lead to gingivitis and an unhealthy oral microbiome, but erythritol can help you maintain a healthy oral ecosystem[*].
Research shows erythritol is more effective compared to sorbitol and xylitol, two other sugar alcohols.
In one study, erythritol worked better to reduce plaque weight, decreased the population of harmful bacteria, and diminished the overall amount of cavities[*].
Using erythritol is no substitute for brushing and flossing, but considering it helps prevent cavities instead of causing them, it’s an upgrade for your dental health when compared to sugar.
Chemicals that help repair this damage are called antioxidants, and it turns out erythritol might fall into this category.
A study found that erythritol acted as an antioxidant that scavenged free radicals and inhibited the destruction of red blood cells, but didn’t interfere with cellular signaling[*].
Blood Sugar and Type 2 Diabetes
Erythritol might be the perfect sweetener for people with insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes.
In a 12-week study of type 2 diabetes patients, 15-20 grams of erythritol per day resulted in lower blood sugar, less insulin resistance, and other health improvements[*].
In rats with type 2 diabetes, erythritol delayed gastric emptying, reduced the absorption of glucose from the small intestine, and improved muscle glucose uptake among other beneficial effects[*].
Erythritol is relatively inert in your gut. In other words, unlike most sweeteners, it doesn’t get broken down or metabolized into other sugars or sugar alcohols. As a result, it has some other unique properties when it comes to intestinal health.
Specifically, erythritol can help to hydrate your colon, protect the intestinal tissue, and purify the colon from pathological organisms[*].
Possible Hunger Reduction
Erythritol slows gastric emptying, helping to reduce the glycemic index of other carbs[*].
In other words, your blood sugar stays lower when you eat erythritol, even if you eat other carbs along with it, because it slows the release of sugar into your bloodstream. It helps you feel fuller for a longer period of time, leading to fewer cravings and reduced appetite[*][*].
There’s solid evidence that most people can consume erythritol with no problem. Unlike other sugar alcohols, even a very high dose of erythritol is unlikely to trigger an upset stomach or have a laxative effect:
- Adults should be able to safely consume 1 gram per kilogram with no adverse effects (that’s 68 grams for a 150 pound person, which is more than you’re ever likely to eat in one sitting)[*].
- A study found a 15-gram dose was well-tolerated in children (that’s about 730 milligrams per kilogram)[*].
Gastrointestinal side effects are rare with erythritol, but they may occur if you mix it with fructose. Aside from small quantities of fruit on keto, fructose should be avoided, so this shouldn’t be a problem[*].
Overall, erythritol appears to be very safe. But there are a few possible exceptions.
Rarely, people are allergic to erythritol. There is a documented case where a child experienced anaphylaxis after consuming erythritol, a life-threatening reaction that can block your airways[*].
If you or someone you know experiences wheezing or other symptoms of anaphylaxis, call 911 immediately.
In another case, someone had a milder inflammatory reaction involving urticaria (hives). While uncomfortable, hives aren’t life-threatening. You should still steer clear of erythritol and speak to your doctor if you become itchy or notice a rash[*].
While erythritol is probably safe for pregnant women, there isn’t enough research to say one way or another. If you are pregnant, you should skip it to be on the safe side[*].
Erythritol as a Marker for Heart Disease and Fat Gain
Studies have shown that high levels of erythritol may predict heart disease and adiposity (gaining body fat).
According to a study looking at the metabolomes of nearly 3600 people over 30 years, elevations in erythritol predicted a higher risk of heart disease[*]. Your metabolome is the unique “fingerprint” of your body’s metabolism, so it can provide a lot of insight into your health.
Another study found that high erythritol levels in first-year college students predicted weight gain over the following nine months. High erythritol is also correlated with reduced insulin sensitivity[*].
Erythritol is a great choice for keto. It has few side effects, virtually no calories, and zero carbs while offering possible health benefits.
Erythritol is different compared to other sugar alcohols because it doesn’t raise blood sugar or insulin significantly. And for most people, it won’t cause an upset stomach, bloating, or diarrhea[*][*].
If you decide to buy erythritol, take a close look at the ingredients listed on the product package first. Erythritol should be the only ingredient, so steer clear of fillers like dextrose or maltodextrin which can raise your blood sugar levels.
If you prefer all-natural sweeteners, stevia and monk fruit should be on your radar. If you don’t like the “cooling” aftertaste of erythritol, you can mix it with stevia. Stevia helps cancel out the cooling effect, while erythritol can counteract the bitter aftertaste of stevia.
The Erythritol Keto Connection
Keep in mind that if you’re addicted to sweets, it might be a good idea to take a few months off from desserts, especially if you’re just starting keto.
Even healthy, low-carb sugar replacements can light up your brain’s reward centers the same way as sugar, which may increase the temptation to reach for a sugary snack in the future[*].
Once you get to a place where you can have a healthy relationship with sweet-tasting foods, erythritol is a great option for a sugar substitute. Just make sure you don’t use it as a crutch in the meantime.
Do you have a sweet tooth or feel like going for a treat? Check out these delicious and guilt-free keto recipes :