What is erythritol?
As all polyols, erythritol is a sugar alcohol or hydrogenated carbohydrate. It is also known as sugar replacer, bulk sweetener or sugar-free sweetener.
Erythritol is a white crystalline powder with a clean sweet taste that is similar to sucrose. It occurs naturally in many foods such as pears, melons, grapes, mushrooms, wine, soy sauce and cheese. Erythritol is produced by fermentation using yeast. It is approximately 60% as sweet as sucrose and flows easily due to its non-hygroscopic character. Like other polyols, erythritol does not promote tooth decay and is safe for people with diabetes. However, erythritol's caloric value of zero calories per gram distinguishes it from other polyols. Erythritol is the newest member of the polyol family and is authorized for use in foods in the EU under the same conditions as all other polyols (except that 0 kcal/g should be used for nutritional labelling purposes). Authorization for use of erythritol in specific soft drinks is pending in the EU.
In what products is erythritol used?
Diet or calorie-reduced beverages are the most popular application for erythritol (European safety number E 968; International number INS 968). Use of high potency sweeteners in such beverages typically results in lack of mouthfeel and is associated with certain unwanted off-tastes like astringency, bitterness and irritant. Erythritol is capable at relatively low concentrations (1-2%) to modify the sweetness profile to become more sugar-like by adding mouthfeel and masking some of the unwanted off-tastes.
Erythritol is also often used in tabletop sweeteners because it resembles the taste, appearance and crystallinity of sucrose, without adding the calories. Like in diet beverages, it is mostly used in combination with high potency sweeteners and can likewise modify their flavour profile to become more sugar-like.
Also in dairy applications, erythritol is used e.g. in yogurt or custard to reduce sugar and/or calories without compromising too much on taste and mouthfeel. In ice cream, erythritol is not only used to reduce calories but also to improve the texture and spoonability due to its freezing point depression.
In chewing gum, erythritol adds freshness because of its high cooling effect. Its medium solubility results in a cooling effect and sweetness release that may last longer in comparison to high solubility sweeteners. In chewing gum centres and sticks erythritol can provide a softer texture and greater flexibility. The latter can be useful during processing where it reduces the risk that the chewing gum rope will break after extrusion and cooling.
Chocolate with 30% less calories (required in the EU for use of a calorie-reduced claim) can easily be made with erythritol using traditional manufacturing processes. The cooling effect of erythritol combines well with mint-flavoured chocolate. If cooling is unwanted it can be masked by using erythritol in conjunction with e.g. inulin which has a positive heat of solution. New patent-pending technology has been developed to reduce the cooling effect of erythritol through co-melting it with specific hydrocolloids, carrageenan in particular (Vercauteren 2008).
Various types of candies can be made with erythritol. Some can contain erythritol as the sole sweetener such as lozenges, resulting in an energy reduction of 90% or more. It can be used to provide a high cooling effect in sherbet-filled stamped hard candies, or "sandwiched" in between two layers in deposited hard candies. Excellent sugarfree fudge and fondant can be formulated with erythritol with a quality similar to conventional sugar-containing versions. Erythritol's medium solubility and crystallization behaviour (extremely high speed of crystallization) limits its use in gum confectionery. It can however function very well as graining sugar in this application, also because of its low hygroscopicity.
In bakery applications, compared to sucrose, erythritol exhibits a different melting behaviour, more compact dough, less colour formation, and better moisture control. Erythritol is often used in combination with maltitol to leverage its higher sweetness and humectancy properties. This may also result in an improved baking stability (regular and finer crumb structure) and a softer end product like is the case with cake.
Pharmaceutical applications include a wide range of solid and liquid formulations where erythritol's taste masking properties are of great advantage when using bad tasting actives. Because erythritol is not metabolized by the human body, it is used as an inert excipient and carrier of drugs in capsules. Erythritol also provides good flowability and stability to powder formulations.