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What is erythritol? The ingredient that's popping up everywhere

It’s no surprise that Americans like their food (and drinks) sweet. But with expanding waistlines and the epidemic of diabetes looming large, we’re looking for new ways to get our sweet fix without the calories or the guilt. Enter erythritol.

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Sugar substitute

You may not have heard of it yet, but erythritol has slowly been creeping its way into our diets and was recently listed by Google as one of their top trending search terms. Erythritol is a sugar alcohol and has been used for years by food companies in diet foods, including candy, gum, frozen desserts, mouthwash, protein bars and fruit spreads.

What is erythritol?

Despite their name, sugar alcohols do not contain any alcohol at all. Their chemical structure is a combination of a sugar molecule and an alcohol molecule, but they don’t behave like either one. There are several sugar alcohols (also known as polyols) and their name typically ends in “ol,” such as sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, lactitol and maltitol. Sugar alcohols do occur naturally in some plant foods, including mushrooms, cherries, carrots, asparagus and sweet potatoes.

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Sugar alcohols provide sweetness to products without a spike in your blood glucose and are low on the glycemic index, so they are ideal for diabetics and people following low carb diets. And while not completely calorie-free, sugar alcohols are much lower in calories than regular sugar and erythritol specifically only has 0.2 calories per gram. It’s in a ton of reduced calorie products, including Vitamin Water Zero and the popular sweetener Truvia.

You're probably already using it

Take a look at some of the reduced carb and reduced calorie products around your house and in your purse and you’ll likely find some sugar alcohols. They were used quite extensively in the 1990s in light ice cream and candies. The products tasted great, there was just one issue—stomach cramping, followed by diarrhea. Not. Fun. At. All.

What’s the deal? Because sugar alcohols are not completely absorbed in the digestive system, they ferment in the intestines, causing bloating, gas, pain and often diarrhea. Not everyone experiences these symptoms, but if you’re one of the 58 million people in the US with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) you are very likely to experience these woes.

Why it's so hot

With such a negative reputation, why is erythritol experiencing a comeback? While sugar alcohols are not endorsed by paleo diet followers, the fact they are low glycemic has led to their use in products aimed at the paleo community. Also, while they’ve been used for a long time by the food industry, you previously couldn’t pick up a bag of the stuff at the grocery store. Now you can easily purchase bags of erythritol and other sugar alcohols at health food stores and online. Also, compared with other sugar alcohols, erythritol appears to cause fewer digestive complaints. What’s more, erythritol has been embraced by dentists for its ability to prevent cavities and reduce the formation of plaque on teeth.

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Should you try it?

If you have IBS, I’d recommend steering clear of all products with sugar alcohols, except for perhaps sugar-free gum because one piece contains such small amounts. If you’re thinking of using it to replace the Splenda or Equal you usually use, go slowly and start with small amounts to see if your stomach can tolerate it.

Cutting sugar from your diet is a smart idea, but I’d personally rather see people do it by reducing the amount of sweets and sugary beverages they consume, not by replacing the sugar with other sweeteners. Sometimes things really are too good to be true.

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