It’s always a revelation to attend the scientific sessions at the Institute of Food Technologists annual show, which took place last week in Las Vegas. The blizzard of scientific sessions there (far more looked interesting than I had time to attend) always reveals a number of things that are—to me, at least—fascinating and surprising.
Take, for instance, what I learned about erythritol.
Erythritol is a sugar alcohol that has a long history; it was first discovered in the mid-1800s. It has some nice properties as a sugar alternative. It is absorbed and tends to pass through the body essentially unchanged, and thus has practically no nutritive value. It has a pleasant, sugar-like taste, and is similar in bulk and granular structure to sugar so it replicates some of sugar’s functional properties.
And it doesn’t seem to lead to the gastric upset that can result from ingesting some other non-nutritive sugar alcohols such as xylitol. Erythritol is produced from sugar via fermentation and is about 60-70 percent as sweet as sugar. The additional processing steps plus the greater amount needed (to achieve a given level of sweetness) means it can be an expensive ingredient, though.
But erythritol has an added benefit; at an IFT session discussing endothelial function and functional foods, I learned that erythritol is an effective antioxidant as well as being a sugar replacer. As I said earlier, at lot of these things are revelations to me, but certainly not to people in the know.
“We’ve known about erythritol’s antioxidant capacity for a long time,” said Tim Avila, founder of Systems Bioscience, a company that manufactures Zsweet, an erythritol-based alternative sweetener. Avila said he has not pushed this property of erythritol to avoid muddying the marketing waters.
And, as I’ve previously reported, the antioxidant waters certainly are muddy. Dr. Joseph Vita, a cardiologist at the Boston University School of Medicine and chairman of the session, noted that the antioxidant activity within cells is a complex picture, with dozens of compounds and reactions all playing a part. “Singling out one particular substance is probably not helpful,” he said.
Boosting blood vessel health
The session, though, was focused on which functional food ingredients have benefits in promoting endothelial health. The endothelium lines the blood vessels of the body, and dysfunction in this tissue can be the harbinger of wider cardiovascular disease.
Evidence presented in the session by Gertjan den Hartog, PhD, of Masstricht University in the Netherlands and Alvin Berger, PhD, of the University of Minnesota, showed that erythritol has some demonstrated benefits in this arena. Erythritol helped prevent cell death in tests, and it reduced the production of so-called adhesion molecules in the endothelium, which is one of the ways in which plaque formation gets started.
As Avila has noted, quoting ORAC numbers for your sweetener might just confuse people. But combining this property with complementary ingredients—polyphenol-rich juices or extracts, for example—in a product aimed at circulatory system health could provide a powerful synergy.
Condition-specific marketing is one of directions the market is going, and these kinds of messages are appropriate where the scientific underpinning is strong. In this case the data looks very promising.
For more on polyphenols, check out the latest installment in the Engredea Monograph series, which will be available later in July. This newest monograph, called the Ingredient Market Forecast, will include a sections on polyphenols and other key ingredients and sections on key trends and market drivers, too. You can also purchase other recent reports on omega-3s and on entering the Chinese nutrition market.
What surprises you about ingredients such as erythritol? Share in the comments.