The lure of sweetness is difficult to resist. However, it is common knowledge that consuming large amounts of sugar can be unhealthy, even deadly. It can add to the chance of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular issues and, ultimately, death.
Instead of using sugar, consumers are increasingly relying on sugar substitutes.
In recent weeks, one such substitute, erythritol, frequently used by people with diabetes and in keto diets to sweeten ice cream, cookies, candies and other foods and drinks, has come under fire. Research conducted through the Cleveland Clinic has found a link between erythritol and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Based on a decade’s worth of data collected from 4,000 people in the United States and Europe, the study found that people who consumed an artificially sweetened beverage with the same amount of erythritol found in many processed foods had markedly elevated levels of the sweetener in their blood for a prolonged time.
The research team also examined the effects of adding erythritol made from fermented corn to whole blood and isolated platelets outside of the body. They found that the presence of erythritol made it easier for platelets to form a clot.
While platelets can serve as a benefit when it comes to stopping someone from excessive bleeding, clotted blood is extremely dangerous to the cardiovascular system.
Dr. Stanley Hazen, chairman of the Department of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Sciences at Lerner Research Institute and co-section head of Preventive Cardiology at Cleveland Clinic, served as senior author for the study. In a press release by Cleveland Clinic announcing the findings, Hazen stressed that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally, and while sweeteners like erythritol are rapidly growing in popularity, “…more research into their long-term effects still needs to be carried out.”
“Cardiovascular disease builds over time, and heart disease is the leading cause of death globally. We need to make sure the foods we eat aren’t hidden contributors,” Hazen said.
Unfortunately, the people who are often encouraged to use erythritol are people with diabetes, patients suffering from metabolic syndrome and individuals suffering from obesity. While they believe they are doing good by staying away from sugar, these individuals, all at high risk for adverse cardiovascular events before the use of erythritol, may actually be putting themselves in danger.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed erythritol as generally recognized as safe (GRAS), Hazen is urging that more work needs to be done to determine the exact safety (and the dangers) of the sweetener – for both high-risk groups as well as on the general population.
“It is important that further safety studies are conducted to examine the long-term effects of artificial sweeteners in general, and erythritol specifically, on risks for heart attack and stroke, particularly in people at higher risk for cardiovascular disease.”
Healthy Ways to Stay Sweet
The researchers recommend that people concerned about how to sweeten up their food without using sugar or a sugar substitute like erythritol talk to their doctor or a certified dietician to learn more about healthy food choices and for personalized recommendations.
There are also easy habits consumers can develop so they don’t need to rely on sugar and sugar substitutes. Adding fruit, like strawberries or blueberries, to your dish is a great, natural option, as well as honey, maple syrup, agave nectar and raw sugar.