Unfortunately, most artificial sweeteners have their own disadvantages. Some leave an unpleasant aftertaste, others are difficult to use in cooking or baking, and many appear to have adverse side effects. Wouldn’t it be great to find a sweetener that actually looked and tasted like sugar and could be substituted in recipes without having to adjust other ingredients? Now, imagine that this product is actually good for you.
Good and Sweet
Impossible? On the contrary, say those who love xylitol (pronounced ZY-li-tol). This sweetener enjoys almost as many medical claims as it does reports on good taste, reduced calories, and low-glycemic rating. Among other things, this sugar-free sweetener has been shown to help:
repair dental enamel
reduce the formation of plaque around teeth
regulate blood sugar in those with Type 2 diabetes
prevent childhood ear infections
strengthen bones and support bone health
alleviate dry mouth
inhibit the growth of Streptococcus pneumoniae.
More than 35 countries, including the United States, have approved xylitol for use in throat lozenges, cough syrups, toothpastes, mouthwashes, nasal rinses, chewing gum, and candies, and as a granular sugar substitute.
A Little Background
Xylitol was discovered in the late nineteenth century by German and French chemists, but it wasn’t produced commercially until World War II, when Finland experienced a serious sugar shortage. After the war, dentists noticed significant changes in the mouths of children whose only sweetener had been xylitol: Their teeth were unusually strong and free from cavities.
This discovery spawned an interest in xylitol. Most xylitol products originated in Finland, and that country was the first to officially endorse its use. Between 1971 and 1999, Finnish scientists published over 200 medical studies of xylitol’s effects; now over an estimated 1,500 studies are in print.
Xylitol is the alcohol form of xylose, which occurs naturally in hardwoods as well as in straw, corncobs, fruits, vegetables, cereal grains, mushrooms, and some seaweeds. Xylitol connoisseurs point out that its flavor depends on the raw material used to produce it.
Because it has the same sweetness as sugar, xylitol can replace sugar in cooking and baking. It dissolves more slowly than sugar at cold temperatures and faster than sugar at warmer temperatures.
Xylitol may be more easily accepted in the body than other artificial sweeteners because humans produce about 15 grams of it a day. This helps explain why most people tolerate small doses very well.
Studies show that daily doses of 4 to 12 grams of xylitol are effective for improving and maintaining health. Mints and chewing gums labeled “all xylitol” (meaning that xylitol is the only sweetener listed) contain about 1 gram of xylitol per piece. Some researchers recommend 7 to 20 grams per day for the prevention of dental cavities or ear infections, divided into several doses of xylitol-sweetened candy or chewing gum. Other studies find that smaller amounts, 5 to 10 grams per day, work well. For best results, xylitol gum should be chewed immediately after eating.
For those with recurring sinus problems, xylitol nasal washes or rinses prevent bacteria from adhering to nasal tissue and mucous membranes of upper respiratory passages, thus preventing infection. This same mechanism helps prevent ear infections.
The next breakthroughs in xylitol research are likely to occur in sports nutrition. “Already,” says John Peldyak, DMD, “there is a steady rumble of rumors about xylitol gaining favor among bodybuilders. . . . Because xylitol is efficiently and steadily converted to glucose (energy) and glycogen (storage), it may be particularly useful when coupled with other carbohydrates for recovery after heavy exercise.”
Xylitol has been tested extensively for safety. In 1963, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved xylitol as a dietary supplement and nutritional sweetener. Since then, it has become one of the world’s most-studied food substances. The only side effect reported in humans is that large amounts, such as 30 to 40 grams taken all at once, can produce intestinal gas and diarrhea. There are no well-known drug interactions with xylitol.