Reducing calories can shorten the lives of those who consume this alternative sweetener.
Erythritol, a popular sugar substitute used to sweeten low-calorie foods and beverages, has been linked to higher rates of heart attacks and strokes, according to a study by Cleveland Clinic doctors. The study, published in the journal Nature Medicine, suggests that the substance puts people at risk by activating platelets to easily form deadly clots.
The natural compound, created by fermenting corn, is 70% as sweet as sugar with zero calories—and the sweetener of choice for popular brands, including Monster Energy drinks, Halo Top ice cream, and Quest protein bars.
“Our study shows that when participants consumed an artificially sweetened beverage with an amount of erythritol found in many processed foods, significantly elevated blood levels were observed for days — levels much higher than those observed to promote clotting risk,” said Dr. Stanley Hazen, chair of the Department of Cardiac Sciences. Vascular and metabolic clinic.
Hazan further cautioned that federal guidelines regarding erythritol and food labeling are murky, and urged consideration of stricter regulation in the interest of public health and awareness.
Sometimes, in fact, the labels don’t mention the ingredients at all, describing them as “artificially sweetened with natural products” or “sugar-free,” according to Hazan.
“Sweeteners such as erythritol have rapidly increased in popularity in recent years, but more in-depth research is needed on their long-term effects,” he said in a statement. “Cardiovascular disease worsens over time, and heart disease is the leading cause of death globally. We need to make sure that the foods we eat are not hidden contributors.”
Over the course of three years, researchers surveyed more than 4,000 volunteers across the United States and Europe and found that those with elevated levels of erythritol in their blood were more likely to sustain fatal cardiovascular disease.
Blood and platelet analysis also revealed that erythritol seems to facilitate the formation of clots.
The results are particularly troubling for the groups of people most likely to partake in low-calorie, low-carb, “keto” snacks, and who are also at greater risk for potentially deadly side effects of erythritol buildup — such as those with diabetes, obesity, or other conditions for which sugar and fat are advised to be avoided.
The researchers note that follow-up studies are needed to confirm their hypothesis. In the meantime, they recommend that patients who want to avoid alternative sugars speak to a doctor or certified dietitian about healthy options.