One of the major problems you’ll face when restricting your carbohydrate intake is how to replace the sugar in your diet.
Some keto dieters choose to focus only on health and give up all sweets and desserts, but that isn’t always possible, especially when you’re brand new to a ketogenic lifestyle.
Going from a typical American diet that is high in sugars and starches to one that is very low in carbs requires a huge adjustment in diet and lifestyle, and sugar substitutes can help make that transition easier.
But all sugar substitutes are not the same.
Some substitutes come with an unpleasant aftertaste, while others are not heat-stable, so they easily break down during the cooking process, leaving you with a dish that isn’t very sweet.
Some are man-made products, while others are plant-based and come with fewer side effects.
In addition, each sugar alternative will affect your blood glucose and insulin level differently.
When doing keto, you need to choose a substitute that will help keep you in the state of ketosis, not break down during cooking, dissolve easily in water, and be safe to use.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol or polyol that was discovered in 1848 by a Scottish chemist, John Stenhouse.
It causes fewer digestive upsets than other polyols. Sometimes used in combination with other sweeteners, which helps to reduce costs, it is easily available to the public.
But is it keto?
Is it an acceptable sugar substitute for those on ketogenic diets? Or will erythritol kick you out of ketosis?
What is Erythritol?
Erythritol falls into the category of sugar alcohol. However, it’s not really a sugar and it’s not an alcohol, either.
It’s a man-made substance that is made by using enzymes to change wheat starch or cornstarch into a glucose solution that is almost as sweet as table sugar.
Once the glucose solution is made, manufacturers ferment the solution by adding yeast. The fermentation process turns the glucose into an almost calorie-free sweet crystalline substance called erythritol.
The most popular yeast used to create erythritol is Moniliella Pollinis, but other types of yeast can also be used.
Erythritol was approved by the FDA and placed on the “Generally Recognized as Safe” list in 2001. It’s a natural substance found in:
But the average person only consumes about 50 to 100 milligrams of erythritol on a daily basis, which isn’t very much.
Is Erythritol Keto?
Those on ketogenic diets will be interested in the findings of a 1994 study done on Japanese males.
Since erythritol was being used widely in Japan during that time, K Noda and colleagues at the Omiya Research Lab in Japan looked at the effect that erythritol had on:
- insulin levels
- total cholesterol
- fatty acids in the bloodstream
No rise in glucose or insulin was observed in any of the participants.
Likewise, triglycerides, cholesterol levels, and even fatty acids in the bloodstream were not significantly affected by the consumption of erythritol like they are when consuming products with fructose.
This makes erythritol extremely keto-friendly.
In addition, the scientists also observed that over 90 percent of the erythritol was absorbed into the bloodstream at 30 minutes and then eliminated from the body within 48 hours, without degrading.
Most of the erythritol was disposed of within the first day.
This explains why erythritol is different from other sugar alternatives.
Rather than passing through the digestive system untouched until it reaches the colon, like other sugar alcohols do, the small size of the erythritol molecules allows most of it to be rapidly absorbed by the small intestine and excreted by the body unchanged.
The body doesn’t recognize erythritol, so it just gets rid of it.
Macros and Carbs in Erythritol
Erythritol is different from other sugar alcohols.
Although, it contains the same amount of carbohydrates that cane sugar does, 4 grams of total carbs per teaspoon, this sugar alternative isn’t metabolized in the same way that other substitutes are, so it’s counted differently.
Erythritol doesn’t raise blood glucose or insulin levels, so you are not required to count the net carbs when doing Atkins.
However, the Atkins Diet does limit your sugar substitute consumption to 3 servings per day.
This restriction includes the sugar alternative in ketogenic products, including theirs, as well as sugar substitutes that come with or without bulking agents.
Other ketogenic diets allow sugar alternatives to be used freely and come with no limits, but some advise you to use a little common sense.
Sugar alcohols other than erythritol still contain significant calories, which means they are being metabolized in the body to some degree.
For this reason, many keto dieters have adopted the practice of subtracting half of the total carbohydrate count when using sugar alcohols.
Erythritol seems to be the exception to this practice, which is based on the fact that 90 percent of the erythritol you consume is excreted from the body in its original form.
Since the body has a difficult time breaking down erythritol, even the small amount that reaches the colon, you don’t metabolize very much erythritol.
Where traditional cane sugar contains 4 calories per gram, and xylitol contains 2.4 calories per gram, erythritol contains only 0.24 calories.
The lack of calories firmly backs up the prior Japanese study discussed above.
It’s the lack of calories in the product when compared to the number of carbs that points out the huge amount of sugar substitute not being metabolized. While erythritol says 4 carbs per teaspoon on the label, most of those carbs are excreted.
The absorption by the small intestine is a huge benefit for those doing keto because the less erythritol that reaches the colon, the less likely that you’ll experience adverse effects.
Benefits and Side Effects of Erythritol
With so little erythritol reaching the colon, there isn’t anything for the colon bacteria to attack or ferment. Erythritol comes with fewer intestinal issues and no known side effects.
In fact, in a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, November 2005, Eva Arrigoni and colleagues looked at the ability of colon bacteria to act on erythritol during a 24 hour period.
The erythritol was completely resistant to bacterial attack during those 24 hours.
For most dieters, there is no laxative effect.
And since erythritol is difficult for the colon bacteria to break down, you’ll likely not experience any bloating or flatulence like with other sugar alcohols.
Oral health is another benefit from switching from cane or beet sugar to erythritol.
The bacteria found in the mouth doesn’t metabolize erythritol, so there’s less chance of cavities or gum disease.
However, eating large amounts of erythritol can cause:
- upset stomach
- stomach rumbling
In addition, if you happen to be allergic or sensitive to the wheat starch or cornstarch used to ferment the glucose solution, there might be enough protein left in the finished product to cause a reaction, such as hives.
If you’re sensitive to corn or wheat, you need to introduce erythritol into your keto diet very slowly and under the care of your allergist or personal physician.
Some people cannot handle any amount of sugar alcohol, including erythritol.
This is because the body’s ability to absorb and break down unknown substances will vary between individuals.
The degree of reaction to an unknown substance in the body will also vary, so in some people, the 10 percent that does reach the colon will be enough to cause a reaction.
If you react to erythritol adversely, you’ll want to check the label of the sugar alternative you’re considering and stay away from products that combine erythritol with other sugar substitutes.
Many of those that use stevia extracts or stevia derivatives still contain huge amounts of erythritol.
Luckily, there are a number of other alternatives to sugar alcohols. Some of these alternatives include:
Sucralose – Also known as Splenda, it comes in bulk, packet, and liquid varieties.
The liquid variety is free of carbs, while the bulk and packets are not. The carbs come from carby fillers so they do need to be counted in your daily totals.
Bulk sucralose is 24 carbs per cup, while each little packet is equal to 2 teaspoons of sugar and contains 1 carb.
Aspartame – The most popular brand names are NutraSweet and Equal, but there are other brands on the market, as well.
This sweetener is not heat stable, so it can’t be used for cooking. It’s available in little packets.
Most diet sodas are sweetened with aspartame, as well as soft drinks and many diet products.
Agave nectar – This is actually a liquid form of fructose.
Fructose is metabolized in the liver and used to refill your glycogen stores.
It doesn’t cause blood glucose or insulin rises and won’t kick you out of ketosis unless you eat a ton of it.
If you eat too much, you’re more prone to fatty liver disease, which makes insulin resistance worse.
Sugar-free flavored syrups for coffee – Generally sweetened with sucralose.
Popular brands include DaVinci and Torani syrups. They come in a wide variety of flavors.
Diet maple syrup – Not a true maple syrup, dietetic maple syrups are generally sweetened with sorbitol, another sugar alcohol.
While some people react adversely to sorbitol, others do not.
It seems to be well tolerated when used in tiny amounts.
Stevia – This is a natural plant-based sweetener, but often found sold in highly refined forms.
SweetLeaf is the most popular brand, as it doesn’t have as much of an aftertaste as some of the others, but there are many brands to choose from.
When combined with erythritol, it’s usually rebiana, a stevia derivative. Stevia comes in packets that include carby fillers or liquid forms that are carb-free.
In general, sugar substitutes come with a lot of controversies. Each alternative has its benefits and disadvantages that must be weighed out when selecting which sugar substitute is right for you.