Xylitol is a newly popular sweetener that has been steadily gaining traction as a sugar substitute. Most dentists like to discuss how good xylitol is for your teeth (it’s really good!) when consumed regularly. On the other side of things are people who urge caution with xylitol because they have concerns about it is processed and it’s side effects. So what’s the truth?
What Is Xylitol?
Xylitol is what is known as a sugar alcohol. It is the same family as sorbitol, mannitol, or erythritol. These sugar alcohols are used as alternative sweeteners because they have fewer calories and don’t spike your blood sugar like regular sugar does. Many of these types of sugars are naturally found in fruits or vegetables and are known as polyols.
Why Use Xylitol Rather Than Sugar?
- Fewer calories. An equivalent amount of xylitol contains around 40% less calories than sugar.
- Similar sweetness to sugar. You can use approximately a 1/1 ratio if you’re substituting xylitol for sugar.
- Low glycemic index. Xylitol doesn’t spike your blood sugar like regular sugar does. This is especially important for diabetics. Regular table sugar (sucrose) has a glycemic index of 65, Xylitol is 12, and no calorie sweeteners such as Stevia are 0.
- Protects your teeth from cavities. Several studies have shown that consistent daily exposure to xylitol through the use of gum or mints used after eating are highly effective in preventing cavities.
Your body is only able to partially digest xylitol and this happens more slowly than regular sugar. When the large amounts of undigested xylitol make it into your large intestine, it pulls water into your large intestine leading to diarrhea.
In addition to the diarrhea effect, you may also develop some gas and bloating. Bacteria in your gut can feed on sugar alcohols and create gas as a byproduct.
Many of these effects subside within a month or two in people who consistently eat xylitol.
Toxic to Dogs
Xylitol is definitely dangerous to dogs. Just as you don’t want to feed them chocolate, you also don’t want to feed them anything sweetened with xylitol. In fact, you probably shouldn’t feed them sweet items in general. Dogs who eat xylitol develop dangerously low blood sugar and also have been found to have liver failure.
Where It Comes From
Xylitol can be derived from several different sources. Most woody, fibrous type plants can be used to make it. Common sources used today are corn cobs or hardwood trees such as birch. Corn cobs have gained more popularity due to the fact that they are easily available and grow much more quickly than hardwood trees. Most companies today also try to source their corn cobs so that they are non-GMO. With the amount of processing it goes through, it is highly unlikely that this makes a difference but might be something to think about.
How It Is Processed
This is where it gets a bit tricky. While xylitol can be found naturally in small quantities in many fruits and vegetables, the process to create large quantities is quite industrial (as with much of our food today). The initial molecule harvested is actually known as xylan (a cellulose type material). Xylan is hydrolyzed to xylose which is then converted to xylitol by adding a hydrogen atom (hydrogenation). Various chemical processes using acids and catalysts are used to do this. This doesn’t mean that any of these chemicals are actually incorporated into the xylitol but it does mean that everything but the xylitol molecule has been pretty much stripped out.
I’m of the firm belief that the root of many of our dietary issues today is that we process food down to it’s constituent ingredients and lose many of the trace minerals, vitamins, and minerals that make food actually nutritious. This is the same whether it is table sugar or xylitol.
Artificial Sweeteners and Weight Gain
Some studies have shown that artificial sweeteners tend to cause more weight gain than just eating sguar. The mechanism for this isn’t terribly well understood. One theory is that the high levels of sweetness confuse your body. You get the sweetness but don’t get any calories associated with it. This increases your appetite and your body goes into fat storage mode. It is thought that sugar alcohols such as xylitol won’t cause this effect nearly as much for a couple of reasons. The first is that xylitol is only about as sweet as sugar whereas other artificial sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter. The second reason is that xylitol does contain some calories, just not as many as regular table sugar. This allows your body some feedback (instead of none) when you are eating something sweet.
Long term health problems
People have been burned before with the newest fads in nutrition. One day something is billed as the best and the next day we find out it can cause health problems we never even thought of. With xylitol, it is generally considered to be safe but we really don’t have any great long term studies. The longest studies we have are with people who consumed it every day for about two years. No health problems were noted other than the GI distress we talked about earlier and even this went away for most people within a month or two.
I think xylitol definitely has it’s place in your diet. Xylitol works best when small amounts are consumed throughout the day. The best way to do this is by chewing gum or using mints after eating. You get great cavity fighting benefits by doing this. You ideally want 5 separate exposures to xylitol throughout the day. Small quantities of candy sweetened with xylitol can also be a good option if you’ve got a sweet tooth throughout the day.
I don’t think most people should use xylitol as a straight up sugar replacement. The GI symptoms can be unpredictable and vary from person to person. If you are concerned about the health effects of too much sugar, you are far better off working to limit how much sugar you are using in general or by using a natural, no calorie sweetener like Stevia. Xylitol or Stevia may be healthier than using regular table sugar but they still don’t have much, if any nutritional value.