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Erythritol – the sweetener produced by our body

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Published on Thursday, 18 May 2017

An international research team where researchers of the TU Braunschweig were involved identified the sugar alcohol erythritol to be a biomarker for developing adiposity. No such biomarker was known before.

Researchers of the lab of Prof. Dr. Karsten Hiller, head of the „Abteilung für Bioinformatik und Biochemie“ at the BRICS of TU Braunschweig could show that student who gain weight have higher levels of erythritol in their blood. Erythritol is an sweetener e.g. used in lemonades and was thought to be very compliant due to the described properties that erythritol is not metabolized by human cells but excreted unchanged. The researchers could show that this assumption is wrong: Erythritol is metabolized and even produced in human metabolism. The work which was done in collaboration with the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) and the Cornell University is published today in the journal PNAS.

The basis for this research project was an observation of nutrition experts: „Three fourths of all collage freshmen in the USA are prone to gain weight in the first term.“ the initiator of the study, Prof. Dr. Patricia Ann Cassano of the Division of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University says. „This might be because the freshmen live on their own for the first time and undergo dietary changes“. Until now, no metabolite was known which could be used as a biomarker for early onset of adiposity. Cassano and colleagues recognized the importance to investigate possible causes to support the development of strategies to reverse the onset of adiposity at an early stage in life. For this purpose, the researchers investigated a representative cohort of college freshmen in the time range of one year and collected blood samples at the beginning and the end of the academic year.
Karsten Hiller who had an appointment at LCSB back then was asked to support the project by analyzing the plasma samples. The aim was to identify the metabolites present in the plasma and how the plasma composition had changed over time. Karsten Hiller is a leading scientist in this field: „We developed techniques to investigate how metabolites are generated and how they are further metabolized. These techniques can be applied to unknown metabolites as well.“ The researchers found that freshmen that experience weight gain over the course of the academic year had elevated levels of erythritol in their blood.

Furthermore, the lab of Karsten Hiller found that erythritol is not only absorbed from food but is also produced from the body. „We used labeled glucose for this experiment“, Dr. Jean-Pierre Trezzi says, who was heavily involved in the project. The researchers use glucose where certain carbon atoms where exchanged by carbon atoms with an additional neutron in the atomic nucleus which is rarely present in nature. „By substituting carbon atoms in the glucose by heavy carbon (13C), we can follow the route of glucose throughout metabolism in our body.“

The result was surprising: If probands drink 13C-labeled glucose, the labeled carbon appears in the erythritol of these persons after some time. „This result proves that the body can synthesize the sugar alcohol itself“, Karsten Hiller says. „Erythritol is not consumed and released from the body unchanged. It has an impact on the metabolism of our body. This finding is in contrast to all previous assumptions.“

However, the exact interplay between increased erythritol concentrations in blood and the development of adiposity cannot yet be answered. „The role of erythritol in human metabolism will be investigated in the following experiments“, Karsten Hiller says. „We will apply the stable isotope-assisted to further investigate the synthesis and degradation of erythritol to clarify the role of this artificial sweetener in the context of weight gain.“

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