What is Xylitol?
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol naturally found in certain fruits and vegetables that makes an excellent low-calorie sweetener. Our bodies naturally produce up to 15 grams of Xylitol daily from the foods we eat, but Xylitol has no substantial nutritive value. Its real value lies in its low glycemic (blood sugar) impact and the fact that sugar alcohols such as Xylitol don’t promote dental cavities, as many sugars do.
Xylitol isn’t new to the natural products marketplace. It was initially discovered by a German scientist in 1891 but was largely overlooked until World War II, when sugar shortages prompted an innovative group of Finnish scientists to begin researching alternative sweeteners. Xylitol quickly became the group’s focus, and they named it “birch sugar” because it was derived from a fiber (xylan) found in the cellulose of birch tree bark. By the 1960’s Xylitol was being commercially used in Europe, the Soviet Union, and Japan. Today it’s commonly used in the United States as a low-calorie, low glycemic sweetener.
What is Xylitol made from?
Xylitol is commercially produced from the cellulose of wood, sugar cane pulp, certain seed hulls, and/or corn cobs. NOW® Real Food Xylitol is produced from non-GMO corn cobs.
What are the most notable differences between Xylitol and white table sugar?
- Xylitol is technically not a sugar; it’s a sugar alcohol, also known as a polyol. Unlike well-known, naturally-occurring sugars such as sucrose, fructose, and dextrose, Xylitol has five carbon atoms instead of six. This difference in molecular structure gives Xylitol its unique benefits and sets it apart from sugars.
- Unlike sugar, Xylitol is slowly absorbed. This means it won’t cause a rapid blood sugar spike, and it doesn’t require an immediate insulin response for it to be metabolized, as most sugars do. Xylitol has an extremely low glycemic index score of 7 on a scale 0-100. For comparison, glucose scores a 100 on this scale.
- At only 2.4 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram for table sugar, Xylitol boasts 40% less caloric impact while providing approximately the same sweetness as table sugar.
- Xylitol consumption has been shown to decrease total caloric intake by encouraging slower gastric emptying, which helps to control appetite.
- Xylitol tastes like sugar, but it adds a barely-perceptible cool “icy” taste sensation due to the fact that it has what’s called a “negative heat of dissolution” – it slightly cools any liquid it’s dissolved in.
- While more research is needed, some scientific studies indicate that Xylitol may help to maintain healthy bone density in animal models.
What is Xylitol’s impact on dental cavities?
Many studies have shown that when combined with proper oral hygiene, habitual Xylitol consumption can support a healthy balance of microoganisms in the oral cavity. This is important because the balance of oral bacteria has a significant impact on the incidence of dental caries.
Refined sugar is the perfect energy source for many of the bacteria found naturally in the human mouth, such as Streptococcus mutans. When provided with a good supply of energy these bacteria multiply much more quickly, and they produce harmful acids as a by-product of their energy metabolism. When enough of these acidic substances are produced, saliva pH is lowered. If saliva pH drops too far below the healthy neutral level of about 7.0 the calcium and phosphate elements of our tooth enamel can start to dissolve, and small pores begin to form. This is the beginning of cavity formation. Because Xylitol is a sugar alcohol and doesn’t ferment, it is not a source of energy for these acid-producing bacteria. This means bacteria count can be better controlled and the healthy neutral pH of saliva can be better preserved, which discourages the formation of cavities. Xylitol also increases the flow of our naturally-alkaline saliva, which rinses our teeth of acids and helps the body to re-mineralize and preserve tooth enamel.
Here is the FDA-approved health claim for Xylitol: “Frequent between-meal consumption of foods high in sugars and starches promotes tooth decay. The sugar alcohols in [name of food] do not promote tooth decay.” (Dietary Noncariogenic Carbohydrate Sweeteners and Dental Caries; 21 CFR 101.80)
Are there any cautions or warnings regarding the use of Xylitol?
Yes: “KEEP OUT OF REACH OF PETS AND ANIMALS. DO NOT FEED XYLITOL OR ANY PRODUCT CONTAINING XYLITOL TO YOUR PET OR TO ANY ANIMAL!”
While Xylitol is perfectly healthy for humans, it should never be fed to animals and pets, in particular dogs. Xylitol can cause an extremely rapid blood sugar drop in canines that may be life-threatening. NEVER feed xylitol or xylitol-containing products to pets.
Xylitol is recognized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a safe food sweetener for people. Large amounts of Xylitol (typically 30 to 40 grams or approximately 7 to 10 teaspoons), taken at one time, can produce undesirable temporary symptoms such as diarrhea and intestinal gas in susceptible individuals. If this happens, reduce intake or discontinue use.