Erythritol (Natural, Low-Calorie Sugar Substitute)
I first found out about erythritol when I bought Honest Tea's Tangerine Green Tea, which has only 10 calories but is all natural. How? It uses a little-known, natural low-calorie sweetener called erythritol. Erythritol has only 5% of the calories of sugar, but 70% of the sweetness.
It's a sugar alcohol, but with a few key benefits over both sugar and other high-calorie natural sweeteners, and sorbitol, maltitol and others used in low-carb products today.
Benefits of erythritol vs. maltitol, sorbitol and other sugar alcohols
- Fewer calories — 0.2 calories per gram, versus 2.1 and 2.6 calories per gram in maltitol and sorbitol, respectively
- Higher digestive tolerance (i.e. no bloating or diarrhea) — it is much harder for bacteria in your digestive tract to digest and convert to gas; it is for the most part absorbed into the bloodstream and excreted through urine unchanged
Advantages of erythritol over sugar, honey, maple syrup, etc.
- Only 5% of the calories of sucrose: 0.2 calories per gram vs 4 calories per gram in table sugar (sucrose)
- Does not stimulate a blood sugar spike and insulin response, the pattern of which is being implicated in diabetes and weight gain; sucrose is far worse than fructose (in honey), but the reponse is far higher in both than in erythritol and other sugar alcohols
- Does not promote tooth decay —like xylitol, it is "tooth friendly"
Other benefits of erythritol
- It's 100% natural, occurring naturally in fruits like canteloupe and grapes. Also, it's a natural by-product of fermentation by bacteria in your digestive tract.
- It's safe. The U.S. FDA lists it as a GRAS (generally recognized as safe) substance, the highest-safety designation, like foodstuffs.
- It is not hygroscopic, which means it doesn't attract moisture and start to clump and harden, like fructose or brown sugar do.
The downsides to erythritol
- It has a large, negative heat of dissolution, which means that it cools hot liquids much more than sugar when you dissolve it (see picture to right), and it is very difficult to dissolve it in cold liquids like iced tea.
- It is only 70% as sweet as table sugar (sucrose), so you will have to use more of it to make something as sweet as sugar.
- It will not melt or caramelize, so it will not brown or melt if you want to make candy or caramel.
- When a liquid with erythritol dries on a glass, it creates fine, white crystals, which makes your glass look really dirty.
To me, these are not big negatives, but they are worth mentioning. For iced tea, it's worth dissolving the erythritol in hot water first, and then adding that to the iced tea, like a simple syrup.
What does erythritol taste like?
It's sweet, but cool. When you put it on your tongue, it will have that cooling sensation that some breath mints have (but without the minty flavor). There is a very faint metallic aftertaste to it. It does not taste as "full" as sugar, but it will certainly taste sweet.
A popular sweetening product, TruVia, uses erythritol in combination with a stevia-based sweetener. With its granular, sugar-like form and sweetness, it's a good base that gets a boost from the stevia or rebaudioside (the component in stevia that gives it its sweetness). Any bitterness you're tasting in TruVia is coming from the stevia (rebaudioside), not the erythritol.
I've found that erythritol works best at providing sweetness to cold beverages, like iced tea. I've also run it through a blender to pulverize it, and added powdered stevia to things like smoothies, and it's also worked very nicely. For some reason, the sweetness tastes too flat in warm beverages like coffee or (hot) tea, but it will impart some sweetness to them. I would not use it to bake or cook, except in very small quantities (like giving a tiny sweet lift to a sauce).