A commonly-used artificial sweetener often found in processed foods, sugar-free products and diet drinks could be increasing people’s risk of heart attack and stroke, a new study has found.
Erythritol is a natural sugar alcohol found in many vegetables and fruit and is even produced by the human body in small amounts.
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But it is also added as a sweetener to food and drinks and is commonly billed as a ‘less harmful’ alternative to sugar.
Erythritol is about 70 percent as sweet as sugar while containing just six percent of the calories, making it a popular choice for diet products such as zero-calorie energy drinks.
But higher levels of the sweetener added to processed foods or drinks might increase people’s risk of blood clots, researchers reported Monday in the journal Nature Medicine.
A team from the Cleveland Clinic in the US analyzed the blood of more than 1,000 people who were undergoing cardiac risk assessments.
They discovered those with elevated levels of erythritol had an increased risk of heart attack and stroke over the next three years.
The researchers also found when they added the sweetener to blood platelets – the cell fragments that clump together to stop bleeding – erythritol made platelets clot faster.
And for the final part of the study, they gave eight healthy volunteers 30g of an erythritol-sweetened drink.
Analysis revealed that over the next two to three days, participants had levels of erythritol in their blood above the threshold known to increase the risk of clotting.
Senior author Dr Stanley Hazen said: “Our study shows that when participants consumed an artificially sweetened beverage with an amount of erythritol found in many processed foods, markedly elevated levels in the blood are observed for days – levels well above those observed to enhance clotting risks.
“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.”
But other experts expressed skepticism, saying more study is required before erythritol can be considered potentially harmful.
“At this point, I think that using small amounts of this, whether it should be in some power bar that you eat or you use a granulated form to put it in your coffee or tea or to have occasionally on your oatmeal, I just don’t think it’s a worrisome thing at this point in time,” said Dr. Karen Aspry, chair of the American College of Cardiology’s Nutrition and Lifestyle Workgroup. “But I do think more study is warranted.”
The Calorie Control Council, a trade association, noted that erythritol has been commercially produced for more than 30 years and is used as an industrial sweetener in more than 50 countries.
“The safety of erythritol as a food ingredient under conditions of its intended use is substantiated by a number of human and animal safety studies, including short- and long-term feeding, multi-generation reproduction and teratology [congenital abnormalities] studies,” the Calorie Control Council said in a statement.
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