What is Xylitol?
Xylitol is a compound known as a “sugar alcohol”. This means that its chemical structure resembles both sugar and alcohol. However, xylitol is actually neither of those things. It’s a type of carbohydrate that looks and tastes very similar to sucrose, also known as table sugar (x).
Unlike artificial sweeteners, xylitol occurs naturally in some fruits, vegetables and plants. Despite xylitol’s natural origins, some industrial prowess is needed to transform the raw ingredients into the crystalline granules that we end up using (x).
Xylitol contains about 33 percent fewer calories than sugar, but tastes almost as sweet. Not only that, the body digests xylitol differently than sugar. As a result, it can be found in candies, oral care products, chewing gum and sugar-free products to add sweetness without causing the deleterious effects of regular sugar (x).
This sugar substitute doesn’t contain vitamins, minerals or anything nutritive, but still can offer some health benefits for those who shouldn’t eat too much sugar (and honestly, who should?). On the other hand, xylitol can cause uncomfortable gastrointestinal side effects, so it may not be the best choice for everyone.
Benefits of Xylitol
Diabetic/Keto/Low-Carb Friendly Sugar Substitute
Saccharide sugars, which are the type found in table sugar, fruit, honey and maple syrup, have a specific metabolic effect. When we eat these foods, insulin must be released into the bloodstream to bind with the sugars and move them into the cells of the body where they can be used.
Unfortunately, this process doesn’t always work. People may not produce enough insulin to handle the amount of sugar just ingested. Or, they may make enough insulin but their bodies have become resistant to it. This glitch in the metabolic process can lead to chronically elevated blood sugar levels and lead to conditions like metabolic syndrome and diabetes (x, x).
Even in the absence of diabetes or any type of metabolic dysfunction, some people just like to avoid spikes in blood sugar and keep their dietary sugar intake to a minimum.
Xylitol tastes sweet but does not raise blood sugar to any significant degree. We know this because it ranks very low on the glycemic index (GI). The GI measures how fast a particular food can raise blood sugar on a scale from 0-100. The higher the score, the faster the rise. Xylitol has a GI of 8 while, for reference, pure honey ranks 58 (x).
For people with diabetes, obesity or who simply want to avoid sugar, xylitol can be a healthy alternative. Studies show that xylitol can reduce belly fat, help prevent weight gain, and improve the symptoms of diabetes (x).
Regular granulated sugar is very destructive to dental health. As the bacteria in the mouth feed on sugar for their growth, they release acids that break down tooth enamel. This leads to tooth decay (x).
Xylitol doesn’t have the same effect and can actually improve dental health. This is one reason why xylitol crystals are present in so many mouthwash, toothpaste and gum products.
Studies show that regular use of oral xylitol products like gum and mouthwash improves oral health in a few ways. First, they reduce the presence of harmful acid-producing bacteria. They also help to minimize plaque buildup. In addition, chewing gum with xylitol stimulates the production of saliva, which promotes overall oral health (x).
Xylitol can be used to irrigate the sinuses for purposes of managing chronic rhinosinusitis (inflammation of the sinuses and nasal cavities). The use of xylitol in nasal sprays to help those manage the symptoms of chronic sinusitis shows promise in clinical trials. Research is still underway, however (x, x, x).
Reduces Ear Infections
The ear, nose and throat are all connected. Bacteria that live in the mouth or nose, for example, can easily cause an infection in the ear (x). Studies indicate that using xylitol products including chewing gum, nasal spray or syrup can help prevent ear infections and reduce the need for antibiotics. In fact, one study of 306 children found that daily use of xylitol chewing gym lowered the rate of ear infections by about 40 percent (x, x).
Gut Bacteria Support and Yeast Infection Prevention
Xylitol is a natural prebiotic, meaning it can promote the growth of “good” bacteria in the gut. Sugar, on the other hand, can actually promote the growth of certain microbes including the yeast Candida. This makes xylitol a great sugar substitute for people who are prone to Candida overgrowth or who suffer from chronic yeast infections (x).
Inhibits Oral Cancer Cell Proliferation
Research suggests that partially substituting sugar for xylitol may help stop oral cancer cells from thriving. According to the research, cancer cells need glucose (sugar) to proliferate and xylitol can interrupt that process, even in the presence of some sugar (x).
Other Potential Health Benefits Of Xylitol
Animal studies indicate that long-term consumption of xylitol can promote the production of collagen. Collagen is an abundant protein in the body and performs important functions like maintaining the health of connective tissue and skin. As we age, collagen production decreases. Therefore, the potential for xylitol to help preserve collagen has applications for anti-aging and mobility (x).
Xylitol can also promote healthy bones. Animal research found that xylitol increased the volume of bone tissue as well as the mineralization of bone in elderly rats. This may eventually turn into a way for people to prevent or treat osteoporosis (x).
Xylitol vs. Erythritol
Xylitol isn’t the only sugar alcohol out there. Consumers have options. Erythritol is another popular sugar alcohol that commonly takes the place of sugar.
Like xylitol, erythritol provides sweetness without the effects of sugar. It also promotes dental health. Unlike xylitol, however, erythritol may be easier on the digestive tract. Because a majority of erythritol is digested before it gets to the colon, users are less likely to experience digestive issues.
Unfortunately, production methods of erythritol make it a more expensive option than xylitol (x).
Xylitol vs. Stevia
Stevia is a bit different. It’s actually derived from a perennial plant that’s been used for its sweetness and therapeutic reasons for thousands of years. Stevia tastes 100-300 times sweeter than sugar and has no calories at all. Two compounds found in the plant, stevioside and rebaudioside A, give it the intense sweetness. While stevioside is considered “pure stevia”, many people don’t like the taste so products generally contain a mixture of the two compounds. Manufacturers might also include additional flavors and sweeteners to the products, making it hard to directly compare “stevia” with xylitol (x).
Generally, however, stevia products offer an acceptable alternative to sugar. Some studies suggest that stevia might also offer other health benefits like improving cholesterol levels and lowering blood sugar (x, x).
Xylitol Side Effects
Xylitol can cause uncomfortable gastrointestinal issues such as gas, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. The severity of the side effects tend to be related to the dose. People wishing to use xylitol on a regular basis can start with small amounts and work their way up as their digestive systems adjust.
These symptoms aren’t necessarily a sign that xylitol is harmful. Since it has prebiotic properties, the bacteria in the gut may need some time to adjust. Of course, if symptoms persist or if something just doesn’t feel right, discontinue use.
Fatal to Animals
Even though xylitol doesn’t affect the blood sugar and insulin levels in humans, this is not true for pets. Non-primate animal species experience a rapid rise in blood sugar and insulin levels when they ingest xylitol, potentially causing life-threatening hypoglycemia and liver damage. Most cases of xylitol poisoning in pets occur when they eat sugar-free gum (x).
Studies show that taking a total of 6-10 grams of xylitol in divided doses per day, preferably after meals, can prevent tooth decay.
To prevent ear infection in children, a daily dose of 8-10 grams in the form of syrup is ideal.
If used as a sugar replacement, simply use as you would regular sugar according to your taste preferences. However, keep in mind that large amounts are more likely to produce digestive upset (x).
The Bottom Line
Xylitol can be an excellent alternative to sugar for anyone, especially those with metabolic issues like diabetes because it doesn’t raise blood glucose levels to any significant degree. An additional benefit that may seem too good to be true is that it actually improves dental health. It can satisfy our sweet tooth without damaging our teeth. With its antibacterial, prebiotic properties, it can also reduce sinus and ear infections and positively impact the digestive system.
Two things to keep in mind when considering xylitol: Like sugar, too much can cause a stomach ache. Most importantly, though, keep away from your pet because it can be fatal.