What is xylitol?

Brian Maurer
June 26, 2021
Oral Health and Lifestyle Advice
minute read

Wouldn’t it be nice to satisfy your sweet tooth without endangering the rest of your teeth? 

Most of us have a weakness for some type of sugary foods. Unfortunately, overindulging in these tasty treats is not very good for our dental health or the rest of our bodies either.

Thus, the search for healthier sweeteners. One of which is xylitol, and the preliminary research is exciting, to say the least. This amazing natural sugar substitute not only doesn’t contribute to the development of cavities like sugar does but also may actively work to inhibit cavity production!

Intrigued? Read on to learn all about xylitol and the benefits of using it. 

What Is it?

First up, what is this mysterious substance? The name xylitol kind of makes it sound manufactured in a lab, but it’s actually a naturally occurring substance.

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that occurs naturally in small amounts in many fruits and vegetables. These include:

It also appears more and more in processed foods and baked goods marketed as a low-sugar or no-sugar alternative. 

However, manufactured xylitol goes through quite a process to produce. It is usually made from a polymer called xylan extracted from birch trees or corncobs. The xylan is then processed until it turns into xylitol. 

The xylitol produced by this method has an identical chemical structure to that found naturally in raspberries and other fruits and veggies. Thus, it is considered to be a natural sweetener though it is processed considerably for production in large quantities. 

Is Xylitol Safe?

Many prominent agencies have approved xylitol for use in humans. These include the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the EU’s Scientific Committee for Food, and the World Health Organization’s Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives. 

Furthermore, xylitol does not stimulate the release of insulin from the pancreas that sugar does. This makes it an excellent sugar alternative for people with diabetes. In fact, it is commonly used as a sugar substitute in baked goods and products made specifically for people with diabetes. 

Take note that as xylitol is digested in the large intestine, it kind of acts like fiber. This means that ingesting large quantities of it can have a laxative effect. However, eating enough xylitol to have this effect is unlikely. Plus, as your body acclimates to it, this effect is less likely. 

All in all, xylitol is widely used and considered to be safe. 

Xylitol as a Sugar Substitute

Xylitol is becoming more and more popular, particularly in the health food and nutrition world. Sugar has so many detrimental effects on the body like promoting cavities, weight gain, and even contributing to some diseases. 

But, we still like our food and drinks to taste sweet.

That’s why a sugar substitute that doesn’t have the calories of sugar or the other negative health effects of some manufactured sweeteners is so exciting. 

In sweetness and volume, xylitol is equal to sugar. In granular form, it even looks like regular old refined white sugar. 

It can be used in equal quantities for sweetening cereals, beverages, and baked goods. However, it will not feed the yeast to make it rise so don’t try to substitute it for sugar in yeast bread. 

The Effect of Xylitol on Dental Health

Here’s where xylitol gets really exciting. There are already a few other sugar alcohols commonly used in sugar-free products. You may have heard of sorbitol or mannitol.

However, xylitol takes things one step further when it comes to dental health. 

Tooth decay is caused by harmful bacteria living in your mouth who break sugar down into acids that can decay your teeth. Eating a high sugar diet feeds these bacteria and allows them to spread and cause further damage to your teeth. 

Sugar alcohols do not provide this food. That’s why you can’t use xylitol as a sugar replacement in yeast bread. The bacteria can’t feed on sugar alcohol in the same way it feeds on sugar. 

Like the other sugar alcohols, xylitol doesn’t provide food for harmful bacteria to grow. On top of that, it also seems to actively inhibit the growth of cavity-causing bacteria. 

So xylitol not only doesn’t help harmful bacteria grow, but it also actively keeps it from growing? That's pretty sweet! (Pun 100% intended).

No wonder dental professionals are getting excited about it!

It also doesn’t take much for this effect to occur. Using 2 grams of xylitol three times per day (for a total of 6 grams per day) can reduce the amount of cavity-causing bacteria in your mouth by about a third after four weeks of use. 

Xylitol and Children

Have you ever wondered where we get cavity-causing bacteria in our mouths? Like many other things you get it from your parents. 

We’re not born with this bacteria in our mouths, but studies show that parents pass it to their newborns shortly after birth. Research has found that parents (particularly mothers) who regularly use xylitol pass significantly less of this bacteria to their children. 

More studies are needed to confirm the safety of excessive xylitol use in women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, but the low doses needed for cavity prevention are generally considered safe. 

Where Can You Find Xylitol?

Xylitol can be found in a number of products. In addition to the foods we’ve already mentioned, xylitol can appear in toothpaste, mouthwash, cough medicine, chewable tablets, lozenges, oral wipes, and mints.

The most common product specifically for cavity prevention is xylitol gum. Many dentists swear by it and recommend it to their patients, particularly those at higher risk of tooth decay.

The chewing action, coupled with the fact that it stays in your mouth for a longer time, helps further reduce the number of harmful bacteria hanging around your teeth. It’s recommended to chew xylitol gum for at least 5 minutes to get the best results. 

One warning for dog owners

Xylitol is not safe for dogs.

For whatever reason, it doesn’t have the same interaction in a dog’s body as it does in a human’s. Whereas xylitol doesn’t stimulate the release of insulin in a human body, it over-stimulates the release of insulin[1] in a dog’s body.

This causes drastic low blood sugar (called hypoglycemia) which can be severe enough to cause death if left untreated.

If you’re wondering about cats and other types of pets, most do not seem to experience the same poisoning as dogs. However, animal studies in ferrets and birds have been found to have the same reaction as dogs. Always read the ingredients list and avoid sharing any treats with xylitol in them with your dog, ferret, or pet bird.

Understanding the Presence of Bacteria in Your Oral Microbiome

How does the bacteria balance look in your mouth? Would you benefit from the use of xylitol?

The easiest way to find out is to send us a saliva sample. We’ll analyze it and give you information about your oral microbiome, a fancy way of saying the bacteria in your mouth. 

If you have a proliferation of harmful bacteria in your mouth and are already diligent about your dental hygiene, adding xylitol gum or other products to your regime could be a major benefit. Send us your sample today to find out!

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