Cutting carbs? Consider erythritol, a sugar alcohol also known as a polyol.
Polyols such as erythritol, sorbitol, xylitol are sugar wannabes that can help you cut carbohydrates and manage your blood sugar levels. That's because these sugar replacers rarely cause spikes in blood glucose even though many have some amount of carbohydrate.
Erythritol has the fewest carbs of all the polyols.
Some people might question whether erythritol has any carbohydrates since its ingestion does not cause any rise in blood glucose or the release of insulin. It's a favorite sweetener for followers of ketogenic diets.
Per teaspoon, erythritol has less than a gram of carbohydrate and 1.6 calories. Compare that to sucrose (plain old sugar), which has 4 grams of carbohydrate and 16 calories per teaspoon.
In fact, the FDA does allow nutrition labels to round erythritol's caloric value down to 0 calories per gram since it offers such a small amount of energy.
Since all polyols, a.k.a. sugar alcohols, have less carbs than sugar, they can help with blood sugar management. This may be a particular concern if you have diabetes or other metabolic disturbances.
For reference, here are the calories per gram for the most commonly used sugar alcohols:
- Erythritol: 0.24 calories/gram
- Mannitol: 1.6 calories/gram
- Isomalt: 2.0 calories/gram
- Maltitol: 2.1 calories/gram
- Xylitol: 2.4 calories/gram
- Sorbitol: 2.6 calories/gram
Clearly, if you are looking for a sweetener that is natural and carb- or calorie-free, erythritol looks like a good choice. Plus, it has other qualities that make it superior to it sugar alcohol/polyol cousins.
But, more about that later, as well as some deets on whether sugar alcohols are actually "natural" sweeteners.
Will I get drunk if I ingest sugar alcohol?
Before we delve into the reasons that erythritol may be the superior polyol, you should know that consuming sugar alcohol/polyols will not lead to inebriation. They do not contain ethanol, and they aren't sugars either.
Instead, they are a sort of hybrid, chemically speaking. They have elements of a sugar molecule combined with an alcohol group. Essentially, they are hydrogenated sugar. The human body does not recognize this type of molecule as completely digestible.
A sugar alcohol's only intoxicating aspect is its taste. The sugar part of the molecule activates the sweet taste receptors on your tongue without making you drunk or fat.
Although derived from natural sources, sugar alcohols are a chemical creation of the food industry. The FDA allows the label to proclaim they are natural sweeteners because mushrooms, bark, fruits, corn, and other plants contain minute amounts of polyols.
In the U.S., much of the erythritol available is manufactured through a fermentation process that starts with corn and uses yeast. To learn more about it, check out this blog post on everything erythritol by Adriane Campos.
Are erythritol and other polyols safe?
The short answer is yes. They are well-studied, researched, and tested. Since 2001, erythritol is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) in the U.S.
(It is worth noting that xylitol is toxic to dogs. Please don't let your dog eat any xylitol-containing foods.)
Credit: Ava Sol on Unsplash
However, it is important to consider that one of the reasons that sugar alcohols have fewer calories than sucrose is that our bodies can't fully break them down. So, colonic bacteria treat them like fiber and ferment them.
Gas, bloating, and diarrhea often result especially when polyols are eaten in large quantities. If you follow a low-FODMAP diet, sugar alcohol and polyols are restricted although erythritol is allowed after the first elimination phase of the diet.
To read about the low-FODMAP diet, click on this link. FODMAPs is an acronym for Fermentable, Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, And Polyols. These are short- to medium-chain sugars that tend to cause digestive distress in sensitive individuals.
Some sugar alcohols, like sorbitol, come with a label warning about their laxative effect.
Your body can probably handle at least 10 to 15 grams of sugar alcohol per day, according to an article on the Healthline website. There are also more generous recommendations of up 50 grams per day. However, the amount varies depending on individual sensitivity.
Erythritol is easier on the gut
Erythritol tends to cause less digestive distress than the other polyols because only a small amount passes into the colon. Most of the molecule is absorbed quickly in the small intestine where it enters the bloodstream and goes to the kidneys to be excreted unchanged in the urine.
Erythritol is a smallish molecule, and probably only 10% of the amount consumed makes it to the colon. That figure is not exact; however, and for some people, as much as 40% could pass into the colon.
Depending on the sensitivity of your GI tract to polyols, you should be able to consume 0.45 grams per pound of body weight in a day. For a 150-lb person, that equals about 67 grams of erythritol.
For reference, there are 2 grams of erythritol in a packet of Truvia. A packet of Pyure has less a gram. Both of these popular sweetener brands also contain stevia leaf.
Erythritol is only 60% to 80% as sweet as sugar. Manufacturers combine intense sweeteners like stevia, artificial sweeteners, rare sugars, or other polyols with it to heighten its sweetness.
Few sugar alcohols are as sweet as sugar. The closest are maltitol, which is 75% to 90% as sweet as sugar, and xylitol, which is almost as as sweet.
Health bonuses of polyols
If you can tolerate the gut rumbling associated with polyols, they provide health benefits in addition to blood sugar management.
Despite the fact that most polyols besides erythritol are digestively difficult, they feed the gut with prebiotic fibers that improve the flora and microbiota. Also, as these polyols are broken down, the colon creates short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) like butyrate, acetate, propionate that are very beneficial to overall health.
SCFA encourage a strong metabolism, immunity, and brain health, and they are anti-inflammatory.
Free radicals are substances that cause damage throughout the body systems and are partially responsible for aging. Antioxidants find these free radicals and get rid of them. In scientific parlance, they quench them.
Erythritol, particularly, in situations of high blood glucose, may prevent vascular damage with this quenching action.
For the sake of comparison, maltitol causes the highest polyol-provoked blood sugar rise because it has a glycemic index of 36. The glycemic index of erythritol is 0. The glycemic index of sugar (sucrose) is 100.
Oral health improvements
Most of the polyols have oral health benefits because they don't encourage bacterial growth in the mouth. Some, like erythritol and xylitol, actually suppress bacteria that cause cavities.
For this reason, they are used in sugar-free gum and mints. A body of research has proved that chewing sugar-free gum or sucking on sugar-free mints after a meal can improve oral health.
Sorbitol is also commonly found in sugar-free gum or mints but is not as effective as preventing tooth decay, Most polyols will provide some degree of oral protection, especially when compared to bacteria-promoting sugar in the form of sucrose, honey, maple syrup, etc.
The cooling mouthfeel of polyols also makes them perfect for use in sugar-free gums and mints. Erythritol is the sugar alcohol with the greatest cooling effect.
Do polyols promote stronger bones? Probably. It's very likely they are preventive against osteoporosis.
Animal studies show that xylitol increases the minerals in bone. The total bone mineral density and content in aged rats whose diet was supplemented with xylitol was greater than the rats whose diet was the same except for the added xylitol.
Summary of polyol health benefits and problems
The health positives of sugar alcohols/polyols are:
- Facilitate healthy blood glucose levels and prevents spikes
- Reduce calories and insulin secretion to help with weight management
- Provide prebiotic fiber for healthy gut microbiome
- Create Short-Chain Fatty Acids (SCFA) that improve metabolism, brain health, immunity, and fight inflammation
- Act as antioxidants scavenging free radicals
- Prevent cavities and boost oral health
- Promote bone health (xylitol)
Plus, polyols/sugar alcohols have been extensively studied and tested and found to be safe to consume.
The health problems of these sweeteners are:
- Digestive irritation like bloating, gas, and diarrhea
- Restricted and problematic use for IBS symptoms and people sensitive to FODMAPs (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols)
Food uses of sugar alcohols
As mentioned earlier, polyols are found in sugar-free gums, mints, and hard candies because of their oral health benefits. Plus, when you suck on them, your mouth feels cool and refreshed.
In addition, they are in many other foodstuffs like frostings, canned fruit, yogurt, and more. Of course, granulated varieties are fine in a sugar bowl. (You can sprinkle them on your breakfast and not add many carbohydrates or calories.)
You'll also find polyols added to food supplements, protein bars and meal replacement drinks to reduce the number of carbohydrates they contain.
How to calculate net carbs????
So how do you know how many carbohydrates you should count if you're eating a food with polyols/sugar alcohols? The nutrition label on your food lets you know the amount of sugar alcohol in the product on a separate line.
On a nutrition label, sugar alcohol is listed on a separate line beneath the Total Carb count.
To calculate the net carbs, subtract half the Sugar Alcohol carb from the Total Carb. In this case, net carbs are 23-5.5 (1/2 of 11) = 17.5.
This net carb subtraction method is not necessary with erythritol. Gram for gram, it does not have any countable carbs. If the nutrition label on the package says a product contains 0 calories, and several grams of erythritol, the product does not contain carbs.
Alternatively, if a product label proclaims no added sugars, but several grams of sugar alcohol, subtract half the grams of sugar alcohol from the total carbohydrate count.
By the way, if a single sugar alcohol is in the product, it will be named on the nutrition label. But if the product has more than one, the label will simply read "sugar alcohol".
Baking with erythritol
Many sugar alcohols are fine in home-baked goods when combined with other types of sweeteners. They require the addition of a more powerful sweetener because they are not as sweet as sugar.
Plus, they don't brown like sugar, so you don't get appealing golden brown cookie edges or a browned top on bread.
Any yeasted baked good will need some kind of real sugar added to the mix to feed the yeast.
Because polyols are not sugars, they will not react with yeast. To help your yeast bloom, use a little real sugar if you're starting it before adding to a dough. If adding yeast directly to a dough, you'll also need to add a small amount of real sugar, honey, maple syrup, or molasses.
Often sugar alcohol sweeteners are packaged as a combo product. Swerve combines erythritol with "prebiotic oligosaccharides," which are may be another type of polyol (although the label shows erythritol as the sole sugar alcohol).
Truvia combines erythritol with stevia, a natural sweetener derived from the stevia leaf. Because Truvia is so popular, you might think that erythritol and stevia as the same thing. They are two different substances blended to make a sugar replacement that tastes great and offers the same sweetness as table sugar.
Erythritol also tends to mask the unusual tastes associated with calorie-free natural sweeteners like stevia or artificial sweeteners such as sucralose. (Don't forget that erythritol is not as sweet as table sugar, so it needs to get a sweet boost from another source.)
Some Truvia blends available in the grocery store also contain real sugar in addition to erythritol. This helps them perform better in baked goods although it does increase the carbohydrate count.
Cost is an important consideration when baking with erythritol blends. A 4-lb bag of white table sugar rings up between $2 and $3. A 1 1/2-lb bag of Truvia Cane Sugar Blend can set you back almost $6.
Truvia's sugar blend is on the lower end of the cost scale for erythritol baking blends. Swerve and others can cost much more. It's important to remember, however, that you often won't as much of these blends unless they measure cup-for-cup like sugar.
I pair an erythritol sweetener with regular sugar when baking at home to achieve browning and a nice texture or crumb. For my tastebuds, the erythritol-stevia sweeteners like Truvia taste more like sugar than other polyols and/or artificial sweetener products used for baking.
Polyols have different relationship with moisture than sugar does. Some are used to help retain moisture, but erythritol does not dissolve as easily and will not necessarily absorb water easily.
That said, I have not had problems getting the erythritol-based confectioner's sugar products like Swerve and Truvia to dissolve. These are terrific for glazes atop cakes, cinnamon rolls, and scones. Check out my blackberry scone recipe with a lemon glaze that contains erythritol confectioner's sugar.
However, erythritol will not lose sweetness when heated or when combined with an acid like lemon juice. This is a useful quality when making jams or perhaps, lemon bars.
That said, If you use mostly erythritol for sweetness, your cake could end up heavy and dense.
The tried and true brownie recipe below uses Truvia's blend of erythritol-stevia-sugar baking blend along with plain ol' sugar. It's adapted from a classic Joy of Cooking brownie recipe. It does not totally eschew sugar, it just has a reduced amount. My family loves these fudgy morsels.
The brownies make a great ice cream sundae base! You can use sugar-free ice cream, but be careful not to eat so much sugar alcohol that your gut starts complaining!
Carb-conscious Brownies Cockaigne
- 9x13" pan
- Liquid and dry measuring cups
- mxing bowls
- measuring spoons
- 4 ounces unsweetened dark chocolate , good quality
- ¼ cup butter , unsalted
- ¼ cup canola oil
- 4 eggs , large
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup sugar , can sub coconut sugar
- ¾ cup granulated Truvia , or 1½ cups of granulated Swerve
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 cup white flour , all-purpose. Use gluten-free, if desired.
- ½ cup walnuts , toasted and chopped
- Heat oven to 350 F. Gather all ingredients,
- Line a 9X13-inch dish with foil. Spray the foil with baking spray or grease with butter.
- Chop chocolate into pieces and combine it with the butter in a microwave-safe dish. Place it in a microwave and heat on high for 30 seconds. Remove butter and chocolate and stir. Continue to microwave in 10- to 15-second intervals, stirring, until melted.Stir in the canola oil and let it cool completely.
- Beat the eggs and salt in a medium bowl until light and foamy. Slowly add the sugar, Truvia, and vanilla and continue beating until the contents of the bowl have thickened somewhat.
- Scrape the melted chocolate mixture into the beaten eggs. Use a spatula or wooden spoon to quickly and lightly meld with the egg base. Do NOT overbeat.
- Still using the spatula or wooden spoon, stir in the flours until just combined. Gently fold in the nuts (if using).
- Scrape batter into the 9x13 pan and place in the oven on the middle rack. It will be a thin layer. Bake for about 24 minutes, reversing the pan front to back halfway through cooking.
- When a toothpick inserted comes out with barely any batter clinging to it, remove brownies from the oven. Let them rest in the pan until cool, about 30 minutes.Remove them from the pan by carefully lifting the sides of the foil. Cut them into small squares using a sharp knife.