Erythritol is a natural sugar alcohol, a type of sweetener used in sugar-free foods. Like all sugar alcohols, it is less sweet and lower in calories than sucrose, and it does not promote tooth decay. Gum and candy made with erythritol rather than sugar is better for oral health.
Erythritol is 70% as sweet as sugar, though it has a similar flavor. It is virtually non-caloric, and some countries label it as such on food packaging. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration requires that erythritol be labeled as 0.2 calories per gram. Because of its low sweetness, erythritol is often combined in foods with an artificial sweetener. The artificial sweetener makes the product sweeter, while the sugar alcohol masks the artificial sweetener's unpleasant aftertaste.
While most sugar alcohols can cause gastric side effects such as diarrhea and flatulence when consumed in large amounts, erythritol does not because it is absorbed into the blood stream in the small intestine and excreted in the urine. Though erythritol can cause a laxative effect if too much is consumed, the amount that would cause such a problem is higher than a person would likely consume in one sitting.
Erythritol, like other sugar alcohols, has a cooling effect when dissolved in water. This can enhance the flavor and sensation of something like mint gum, but can taste odd in other products, such as frosting. When erythritol is combined with fats, such as butter or cocoa butter, the cooling effect can make the texture waxy. Another potential problem with erythritol is that it does not attract water, which can cause baked goods made with the sugar alcohol to dry out more quickly. It also has a tendency to crystallize.
Erythritol is often combined with other ingredients to more closely mimic sucrose in taste, texture, and other properties. Inulin, a type of carbohydrate that naturally occurs in some plants and is used as a sugar and fat substitute, is frequently used in combination with erythritol. It has a heating effect when combined with water, which helps to cancel out erythritol's cooling effect. Isomalt and glycerin, two other sugar alcohols, also have properties that work well in combination with those of erythritol.