News from CRIS: Real-time Science - Sweeteners

May 9, 2023

What are sweeteners?

Any ingredient that adds a familiar sweet taste to our foods is a sweetener. We can find sweeteners in nature (e.g., honey, maple syrup), humans can make them from synthetic ingredients, or we can derive them from natural ingredients.

What types sweeteners are there?

There are four main types of sweeteners:

  • Sugars

  • Sugar Alcohols

  • Artificial Sweeteners

  • Naturally-derived low-calorie sweeteners, like Stevia & Monk Fruit

What are sugar alcohols?

Sugar alcohols are compounds derived from sugars such as fructose and glucose.

We find sugar alcohols in many reduced-calorie sweetened food products such as gummy bears, chewing gum, frosting, dairy desserts, and more.

While sugar alcohols contain some calories, they do not cause the same blood-sugar spikes that common sugars cause and can be suitable for individuals with health conditions like diabetes.

Additionally, some research shows that the sugar alcohol xylitol can help prevent cavities and protect oral health when used in chewing gums and hard candies (1,2). 

Are sugar alcohols safe?

Sugar alcohols are safe for most individuals when consumed in moderation. However, if consumed in excess, some sugar alcohols can cause gastrointestinal discomfort and can have a laxative effect (1,2,3).

What about the sugar alcohol erythritol? Is erythritol safe?

A recent study that made headlines suggested that erythritol could pose a potential health risk related to cardiovascular events. However, the study is not conclusive.

Erythritol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol we find in fruits, fermented foods (e.g., cheese), and it is naturally produced in our bodies (1).

The study showed that individuals with elevated erythritol levels were at greater risk for a cardiovascular event. However, the study is unable to decouple whether consuming additional erythritol through foods leads to elevated erythritol levels or if our body naturally produces more erythritol when we’re at risk of a cardiovascular event, which is known to occur.

Additionally, the individuals who partook in the study had underlying health concerns that put them at greater risk for adverse health outcomes, including cardiac events.  

Epidemiological studies, like the study designed for erythritol, are fantastic tools to help scientists identify areas for future research. But, they are not designed to show causation. Rather, they show a correlation. There are also a number of confounding factors that impact epidemiological studies. Confounding factors are unmeasured variables that influence the interpretation of results when attempting to establish cause and effect.

In short, more studies are needed on erythritol exposure to ensure the safety of individuals who may have underlying conditions that put them at additional risk for a cardiovascular event.


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