What is Erythritol?
Erythritol is a polyol, which is a carbohydrate that is structurally similar to sugar. However, compared to sugar, polyols contain less calories and are mostly indigestible. Erythritol is white, unscented, and water-soluble. Furthermore, it also does not retain moisture and does not easily degrade in the presence of heat. These characteristics make erythritol a popular alternative in the development of healthier food and beverage products.
Naturally, erythritol is found in melon, grape, and fermented products. Human bodily fluids, such as serum, semen, and urine, also contain erythritol. Additionally, it can be manufactured by hydrolyzing starch with the use of osmophilic yeasts.
Digestion, Absorption, and Excretion
Erythritol is a small molecule that only contains four carbon atoms and weighs 122.12 grams per mole. Because of this, it can passively diffuse in the small intestine for its absorption; after this, it
travels through the blood. Since the human body does not have the appropriate enzymes to metabolize erythritol, it is removed through the kidneys. These molecules are mainly excreted through urine, with some amount excreted through feces.
Moreover, erythritol does not undergo extensive fermentation in the colon. A study conducted by Roper and Goossens measured the amount of hydrogen present in human breath after administration of various polyols; specifically, glucose, erythritol, and lactitol. Methane and hydrogen are produced when substances undergo fermentation in the colon. These gases go into the bloodstream and eventually manifest in human breath. By measuring the hydrogen levels when a person exhales, the study proponents can determine whether the substances underwent fermentation. With this, there was no difference in hydrogen levels present in the breath before and after intake of erythritol and glucose. On the other hand, there was an increase in hydrogen levels after the intake of lactitol. Thus, the microflora in the colon cannot efficiently metabolize erythritol.
Erythritol vs. Other Polyols
Similar to other polyols, erythritol is a good alternative to sugar because it does not negatively affect oral health. Moreover, it is also suitable for diabetic patients because blood glucose levels remain unaffected when consumed. However, erythritol has fewer calories. It only contains 0.2 calories per gram compared to other polyols such as sucrose (4 calories/gram), sorbitol (2.6 calories/gram), and lactitol (2 calories/gram). Erythritol is also better tolerated by the gastrointestinal system.
Gastrointestinal Effects of Consuming Erythritol
In a study conducted, 94% of orally administered erythritol was excreted in urine and 1% in feces. The consumption of 10% erythritol initially resulted in light diarrhea; however, this only lasted for three days. In comparison to that, consumption of 10% sorbitol resulted into serious diarrhea. Sorbitol is not absorbed as fast as erythritol and the microbes in the intestine are also unable to metabolize it. Erythritol has a high permeability coefficient because it only has four carbons. This enables it to be easily absorbed in the body. In relation to that, erythritol also does not have a bulking effect. The amount of feces collected after ingestion of erythritol did not increase among the subjects.
The erythritol that was not absorbed in the small intestine gets transported to the large intestine, as evidenced by the increase of the size of the cecum. Similarly, other sweeteners that are not easily absorbed also get transported to the large intestine to further undergo fermentation by the microflora. This process produces short chain fatty acid which are used for energy of the tissues. When substances are not absorbed in the small intestine, the osmotic pressure within the area increases. These unabsorbed substances will attract water from the mucosal wall, which will result into the excretion of watery stool. Flatulence also occurs when substances undergo fermentation because of the associated gas production.
However, since erythritol is easily absorbed and excreted, a lower osmotic pressure is produced compared to that of sorbitol. Overtime, regular consumption of sorbitol two to three times a day increases the maximum amount of intake that will not cause diarrhea. On the other hand, individuals can consume more of erythritol without experiencing diarrhea.
The oral microflora is also unable to metabolize erythritol; thus, it is not easily converted to acids. Because of this, its consumption is suitable for oral health. Streptococcus mutans, bacteria found in the mouth, causes tooth decay. However, the aforementioned bacteria do not develop on erythritol. This can prevent tooth decay and formation of tooth plaque.
Erythritol as an Alternative in Cooking and Baking
In terms of taste, erythritol is similar to sucrose. Additionally, it leaves no bitter aftertaste. Sucrose is often the standard used in determining a product’s level of sweetness. With this, erythritol is sweeter compared to other alternatives. Specifically, it is 70% sweet in comparison to sorbitol (60%) and lactitol (40%). When cooking, it can be added to aspartame or acesulfame potassium to provide a sweeter taste to the food or beverage without producing a spike in the blood glucose levels of the consumer. Given this, erythritol can be used as a substitute for sugar when cooking or baking in order to create a healthier product.
The properties of erythritol also make it suitable in achieving the desirable taste, texture, and density of a product. Erythritol provides a similar texture as when sugar is used. As mentioned, erythritol is not easily altered by heat; this makes it desirable for food production because they can retain their sweet taste even when exposed to a high temperature. Lastly, its low molecular weight increases the freezing point depression of a given product. When used in making ice cream, erythritol produces a softer product compared to other sweeteners.
With this, erythritol is a highly suitable alternative for those who are either at risk or have developed diabetes because it contains fewer calories and is highly tolerated by the gastrointestinal system. This can contribute to the weight management program of patients without sacrificing the taste of food and beverages. It also provides a workable consistency and texture for food development because of its similarities with sugar, which is often the ingredient used as a sweetener.
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