Over the last decade a new class of sweeteners – known as sugar alcohols or polyols – has made its way into thousands of consumer products worldwide. You’ve probably seen ingredients like erythritol, xylitol, mannitol, maltitol, sorbitol and others listed on the nutrition labels for everything from gum and mouthwash… to soda, cookies, ice cream and more.
The use of polyols has exploded because of their ability to offer sweetness, without the blood-sugar spike and other health consequences of fructose and glucose.
But you might have also heard (or experienced) that some sugar alcohols can cause digestive distress, due to their classification as FODMAPs. While this statement is absolutely true – and you’ll discover why in a moment – there is one sugar alcohol for which it does not apply…
The reason? The chemical composition of erythritol is very different from other sugar alcohols.
Today, I’ll show you how these chemical and structural differences make it a far superior choice when it comes to your digestive (and overall) health. And we’ll discuss the specific properties that set erythritol apart from other sugar alcohols.
But first, it is important to understand…
What are FODMAPs and Why do they Cause Digestive Distress (For Some People)?
The term FODMAPs is an acronym for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. These compounds are found in a wide variety of foods. And there is considerable confusion about them, because many of the worst offenders are (otherwise) some of the healthiest foods!
For example, apples, asparagus, blackberries, Brussels sprouts, garlic, onions and sweet potatoes are all FODMAPs. While these colorful fruits and vegetables appear to be the foundation of a healthy diet, they can cause severe digestive illness for some people.
The reason why is related to the “F” in FODMAPs – fermentable.
Fermentable carbohydrates are not broken down by digestive enzymes. Instead, we rely on microorganisms in our gut to break these compounds into smaller particles by way of fermentation. For those people with a healthy gut and microbiome, fermentable carbohydrates can be a good thing.
These compounds feed beneficial bacteria. This helps to increase their numbers and produces health-promoting compounds. For example, when the “good” gut bacteria Roseburia feeds on fermentable carbs, short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are formed. These compounds protect against leaky gut, cancer and inflammation… to name just a few benefits!
But it is very important to understand that fermentable carbohydrates do not just feed your “good” gut bugs… pathogenic organisms (like gram-negative bacteria) also thrive on these substances!
If you have an unhealthy, imbalanced microbiome (dysbiosis), foods which might be perfectly healthy for some people could cause you severe digestive distress and long-term illness.
When “bad” gut bacteria enjoy a fermentable substrate, they often produce gas and bloating. These symptoms are certainly uncomfortable and embarrassing. But that’s not the worst part!
Strains of harmful bacteria also produce toxic byproducts like inflammatory endotoxins and cytokines and lipopolysaccharides (LPS), which are linked to liver disease, leaky gut, metabolic syndrome, Chrohn’s disease and autoimmune conditions (to name a few).
So it’s not just about reducing symptoms – but reducing your risk for disease as well. Therefore, avoiding foods and substances that encourage the growth of “bad bugs” is vital.
So, let’s get back to polyols (the “P” in FODMAPs) and discuss what sets erythritol apart…
Erythritol: The Simplest of All Sugar Alcohols
When it comes to chemistry, the structure and the function of a molecule are inextricably linked.
The number of elements and how these elements are arranged can make a huge impact on how a substance behaves. For example, water and hydrogen peroxide are both very simple molecules consisting of hydrogen and oxygen. But there is a BIG difference between H2O and H2O2.
In a review article on the link between gastrointestinal disturbances and sugar alcohols, researchers in the International Journal of Dentistry state that:
“Sugar alcohols behave in the gut in different ways. Their effects are not identical. Sugar alcohol molecules react in the gut as physical and chemical entities based on their molecular mass, number of hydroxyl groups, the spatial orientation of those groups, and the overall symmetry of the molecule.”
When it comes to sugar alcohols, mass (molecular weight) and the number of hydroxyl groups (hydrogen and atoms bonded together) are the two most important molecular factors to understand the fermentation potential of different sugar alcohols.
The higher the mass and the more hydroxyl groups (-OH) a sugar alcohol has, the greater the risk for digestive discomfort.
As you can see in the table below, erythritol has the lowest molecular weight and the fewest hydroxyl groups of all the sugar alcohols…
You can also see that mannitol and maltitol – two sugar alcohols well-known known for their ability to cause extreme digestive distress – are MUCH higher by both measures.
The same is true for sorbitol, which is often used as a laxative. This is why many people who are sensitive to sugar alcohols often have trouble with sorbitol-rich fruits like apples, cherries, plums, peaches and apricots.
This alone doesn’t prove erythritol is not fermentable, but it does illustrate…
Why Erythritol is the Best Sugar Alcohol to Consume
We’ve all heard the adage that, “What goes in must come out.”
When it comes to most food, however, what comes out is very different than what went in…
As we metabolize proteins, fats and carbohydrates, they are broken down and transformed by enzymes, acids and bacteria to produce a wide variety of health-promoting (and sometimes health-harming) byproducts.
But in the case of erythritol, what comes out is exactly what went in…
Because of its simple structure, 90% of the erythritol you consume is absorbed in the gut and then excreted in your urine completely unchanged. Take a look at the absorption, fermentation and excretion of the various sugar alcohols from Nutrition Research Reviews:
Given the above, you might wonder what happens to the 10% of erythritol that makes it to the colon?
Is it fermented like other sugar alcohols and fermentable carbohydrates?
Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition provides an answer…
In the study, researchers evaluated the fermentation potential of erythritol compared to other sugars and sugar alcohols. The researchers discovered that the small amount of erythritol that did make it to the colon was “completely resistant to bacterial attack”.
The researchers found that no gasses or short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) were produced as the result of fermentation… and the erythritol was recovered unchanged after traversing the colon.
Because erythritol does NOT ferment in the gut it is technically not a FODMAP.
Erythritol Does NOT Feed Any Gut Bacteria (Good – or Bad!)
These unique attributes make erythritol the perfect gut-friendly sweetener. Not to mention that it is nearly as sweet as sugar with a very similar taste profile – while boasting zero calories and zero glycemic impact.
It should also come as no surprise that when scientists evaluated the maximum tolerable dose of various sugar alcohols (without causing digestive discomfort or laxative effects) that erythritol has the highest digestive tolerance.
Based on this research, a 100 pound woman could consume 36 grams of erythritol without experiencing gastrointestinal disturbances. For sake of comparison, one serving of Wellness Bakeries Chocolate Bliss Cake contains just 8 grams of erythritol.
That would mean – theoretically – that you could enjoy nearly five cupcakes without experiencing an issue. Although, I have been formulating with and consuming this ingredient for more than a decade and have never experienced digestive symptoms from it.
Now, after all of this science, you might be wondering…
How Does Erythritol Fit in an Ancestral Diet?
The truth is, if you’re eating an ancestral diet, you’re already consuming erythritol.
It’s a naturally occurring substance (not artificial as it is sometimes purported to be!) that is found in a wide variety of foods, including pears, watermelon, mushrooms, soy sauce and wine. In fact, it is even produced within the body, which means your physiology is intimately familiar with this substance.
If you follow an ancestral, Low FODMAP diet, you can rest easy knowing that erythritol is a safe and clean addition to your dietary protocol.
Now that’s what I call having your cake and eating it too!
In my upcoming articles, I’ll delve into the science (and debunk the myths!) on erythritol and leaky gut and metabolism.
ED NOTE: Kelley Herring is the co-founder of Wellness Bakeries, makers of grain-free, gluten-free, low-glycemic baking mixes for cakes, cookies, breads, pizza and much more.
Kelley’s academic background is in biology and chemistry and for the last 15+ years, she has focused on the study of nutritional biochemistry…and the proven powers of compounds in foods to heal the body.
 Kauko K. Mäkinen, “Gastrointestinal Disturbances Associated with the Consumption of Sugar Alcohols with Special Consideration of Xylitol: Scientific Review and Instructions for Dentists and Other Health-Care Professionals,” International Journal of Dentistry, vol. 2016, Article ID 5967907, 16 pages, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/5967907.
 F. Rincón-León, in Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition (Second Edition), 2003
 Livesey, G. (2003). Health potential of polyols as sugar replacers, with emphasis on low glycaemic properties. Nutrition Research Reviews, 16(2), 163-191. doi:10.1079/NRR200371
 Arrigoni, Eva & Brouns, Fred & Amadò, Renato. (2005). Human gut microbiota does not ferment erythritol. The British journal of nutrition. 94. 643-6. 10.1079/BJN20051546.
 Storey, D, Lee, A, Bornet, F, Brouns, F. Gastrointestinal tolerance of erythritol and xylitol ingested in a liquid. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2007;61(3):349.