If you are looking for a zero-calorie sweetener to replace table sugar, you may be confused as to what option is the best. The popular sugar substitutes, stevia and erythritol can both be good options to lower your sugar intake. In this article, we discuss the pros and cons of each of these options and which might be the best fit for you.
An overview of non-nutritive sweeteners
Non-nutritive sweeteners include low calorie sweeteners, artificial sweeteners and noncaloric sweeteners. They can either be very low in calories or contain zero calories and offer no nutritional benefits like vitamins or minerals.
Examples of non-nutritive sweeteners include:
- Monk fruit
These sweeteners also go by brand names such as NutraSweet, Equal, Sweet One, Sweet’N Low, Splenda, Truvia and PureVia.
An overview of sugar alcohols
Sugar alcohols are carbohydrates that have characteristics of both sugars and alcohols. They are naturally found in small amounts in some fruits and vegetables. They are slowly and incompletely digested in your stomach, meaning they only provide a small amount of calories.
Some examples of sugar alcohols include:
Sugar alcohols may cause gastrointestinal discomfort like gas, bloating and diarrhea in some, so make sure you limit your consumption if you have these side effects.
What is erythritol?
Erythritol is a natural sweetener and belongs to the family of sugar alcohols called polyols, which are found naturally in grapes, mushrooms and soy sauce. While erythritol isn’t zero calories, it is still very low in calories while maintaining a sweet taste. One gram of erythritol contains only 0.24 calories, which is why some people refer to it as zero calorie.
It contains 70% of the sweetness of sugar with only 6% of the calories, which is a clear choice when it comes to reducing your calorie intake. As for this flavor, it’s very similar to sugar. Some people can’t even tell the difference between the two.
Erythritol may also go by other names, so be sure to keep these in mind when you are reading nutrition facts labels. These other names include Zerose and Erylite. Erythritol can be found in a variety of food products including sugar replacements, zero calorie sodas, health supplements, protein bars, powdered drink mixes and more.
What is stevia?
Stevia is a sweetener derived from the leaves of stevia rebaudiana in South America. It contains two calories per gram, which fits it into the category of zero-calorie sweeteners or low-calorie sweeteners depending on your country’s labeling requirements.
Stevia has a bitter aftertaste compared to table sugar, but contains far fewer calories, which is why people will use it as an alternative. Pure stevia leaf can be up to 250 to 300 times sweeter than sucrose or table sugar.
Stevia can go by several names, so be sure to keep these in mind when you are checking a nutrition label. These names include steviol glycosides, stevia extract, stevia rebaudiana.
Are erythritol and stevia natural sweeteners?
Even though erythritol is derived from natural sources, it is considered an artificial sweetener. On the other hand, stevia is considered a natural sweetener and is one of the most popular natural sugar substitutes.
That being said, it’s important to note that natural doesn’t automatically mean better. There are plenty of natural compounds that are deadly and plenty of artificial compounds that are harmless. For example, peach pits contain cyanide, which can potentially be fatal. On the other hand, beta alanine, an amino acid derived from animal products can have beneficial effects on athletic performance.
Erythritol and stevia are both sweeter than regular sugar, but they do have distinctly different tastes. The main difference is the bitterness. Stevia has a rather bitter aftertaste that takes some getting used to. On the other hand, erythritol’s flavor is similar to regular sugar and it doesn’t have much of an aftertaste.
Overall, erythritol is considered the better tasting of the two options. That being said, some people don’t notice the aftertaste of stevia and can’t tell the difference between the two sweeteners.
Are erythritol and stevia safe to consume?
Yes, both stevia leaf extract and erythritol are generally recognized as safe or GRAS according to the Food and Drug Administration. That being said, stevia leaf and its crude extract are not considered GRAS, so the form does matter.
While these sweeteners are generally considered safe, there are a few health concerns that are associated with consumption of these food products. None of these connections are proven to be true, but it’s important to consider there could be a potential risk of consuming these sweeteners, especially in large quantities.
Along with this, there are some health benefits associated with these sweeteners. Firstly, they don’t promote tooth decay like table sugar and they can even promote weight loss when used as a replacement from regular sugar. These are two reasons to choose erythritol and stevia over sugar and sugar sweetened beverages.
A recent study published in 2023 showed that high blood levels of erythritol was associated with risk of cardiovascular events and heart attack. Erythritol was found to increase blood clotting and arterial blockage in animal studies. While this connection hasn’t been proven, there is some concern about the correlation. If you are at higher risk for heart disease, please speak to your doctor to see if you should be avoiding or limiting erythritol.
There are some in vitro and in vivo studies in animals that show that stevia can have an effect on your gut microbiome. But, depending on the study, these effects can be harmful, beneficial or non-existent. Overall, there is not enough evidence to suggest stevia is good or bad for your gut microbiome.
How much is too much?
When it comes to any food on the planet, there is such a thing as “too much”. This even applies to water and vegetables. These limits also apply to food additives, including low calorie sweeteners.
Tolerable upper limits refer to the amount you would have to consume before experiencing negative side effects such as gastrointestinal discomfort.
The tolerable upper limit for erythritol is 0.66 grams per kilogram of body weight per day for men and 0.80 grams per kilogram of body weight per day for women. Since 1 teaspoon of erythritol is about 4 grams, this would come out to about 11 teaspoons of erythritol for a 150-pound man or 13 teaspoons for a woman the same size.
Overall, it’s hard to consume too much erythritol. If you are consuming food products containing erythritol multiple times a day, it may be a good idea to track the amount of grams you are consuming. But if you are only consuming erythritol in moderation, I wouldn’t worry about overdosing.
According to the World Health Organization, you should limit your stevia intake to less than 4 milligrams (or 1 teaspoon) per kilogram of body weight. For a 150-pound person, this would be equal to about 68 teaspoons of stevia daily.
As you can see, stevia is even harder to over consume compared to erythritol. If you consume low calorie nutritive sweeteners often throughout the day, I would recommend switching up the source to avoid overdosing on a single source. These sources include stevia, erythritol, other sugar alcohols, monk fruit, aspartame, saccharin, sucralose and acesulfame potassium.
Do erythritol and stevia affect blood sugar levels?
A common concern floating around the internet is that erythritol and stevia can impact blood glucose levels in a similar way to regular sugar.
In a 2019 review of seven studies, they found that stevia consumption had no effect on blood glucose levels for diabetic or non-diabetic participants.
In a 2023 meta-analysis of 36 studies, they found non-nutritive sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, stevia and sucralose had no effect on insulin and blood glucose levels compared to water.
A 2023 randomized control trial studying the effects of erythritol of insulin release found no different compared to water.
Overall, both stevia and erythritol can be a better choice compared to sugar sweetened foods and beverages. They can be appropriate for both insulin resistance and type II diabetes as well as a ketogenic diet due to them containing a negligible amount of carbohydrates and overall calories.
Food products using stevia or erythritol
There are plenty of food products that contain stevia, erythritol or a mix of both. These items include ice cream, pancake mixes, baked goods, sweet drinks, sauces and more. You can find these items at a variety of grocery stores.
Here are a few items that I love:
Other sugar alternatives
There are a variety of sugar alternatives other than stevia and erythritol that can be part of a healthy and balanced diet.
As discussed earlier, non-nutritive sweeteners, artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols are all good replacements for table sugar. These include aspartame, acesulfame-K, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia, monk fruit, allulose, xylitol, erythritol, sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt and maltitol.
There are also a variety of sweeteners that aren’t table sugar, but are still sugary. These include maple syrup, honey, agave nectar, high fructose corn syrup, brown rice syrup, date syrup, brown sugar and molasses.
If you are looking to lose weight and have better control over your blood glucose levels, the best option will be non-nutritive sweeteners and sugar alcohols due to their low amount of calories and carbohydrates.
How to use erythritol and stevia in baking
When it comes to baking, replacing sugar can be very difficult. This is because sugar doesn’t only add sweetness to the dish, it adds bulk which can greatly affect the end product of whatever you are making.
When baking with erythritol, remember that it is 70% as sweet as sugar. So you may need to add more erythritol to reach the same level of sweetness as sugar. Alternatively, you can add as much erythritol as you would add sugar, then add a more concentrated sugar substitute like stevia to make it sweet enough without taking up too much room.
If you choose to use stevia, the exact opposite issue comes up. Since stevia is much sweeter than sugar, you will need a bulking agent to take up the same amount of space as sugar. In some cases, you may need to add more liquid ingredients to counterbalance the lack of sugar. You can also combine stevia with erythritol to reach the desired bulkiness.
Many sugar replacements use a combination of stevia and erythritol for this reason specifically. Ideally, it’s best to find a sugar substitute combination that can be used as a 1:1 substitute for sugar.
When to avoid sugar substitutes
If you notice any gastrointestinal discomfort or allergic reactions after consuming food products containing sugar substitutes, please speak to your doctor. It’s possible you only react to specific sugar substitutes (ex. aspartame) or a class of sugar substitutes (ex. sugar alcohols). Either way, it’s best to see a medical professional.