Xylitol General Information
Xylitol (or birch sugar as it is alternatively called) is a sugar alcohol. Unlike most of the commonly used sugar substitutes, it is an all natural sweetener. It is naturally found in a variety of foods like fruits and vegetables including berries, cauliflower, endives, corn, mushrooms, plums and oats. In addition to that, it is an intermediate of the human carbohydrate metabolism, and the human liver can produce 5-15gr per day(1,2).
The names birch sugar and wood sugar are derived from the fact that it is produced from birch tree pulp. The name itself, comes from the Greek word xylo that means wood, so it means wood alcohol. Nowadays, corn is also used for its production. Other sources that can be used include raspberries and plums.
It was first discovered by Emil Fischer in Germany and M.G. Bertrand in France almost simultaneously in the late 19th century. During the next fifty years it did not receive much attention. The sugar shortage in Finland During WWII was the main reason for its rediscovery.
After the war, commercial production started, and the United States Food and Drug Administration approved it in 1963 for special dietary purposes. Then, in the 1970s researchers in Finland (Turku) discovered its dental health benefits. Since then a large number of trials have confirmed the original findings and explored the underlying mechanisms(3).
Today, manufacturers use it in a variety of products, and scientists investigate more potential health benefits, as well as more efficient and cheaper production methods.
As we mentioned, xylitol is a naturally occurring substance that most people consume regularly through their diet, that alone shows that it is safe. However, a lot of people wonder if it has any toxic effects if consumed in large quantities. The currently available studies have shown no xylitol toxicity in humans. Nevertheless, it can be dangerous for dogs.
A study that focused on assessing the long-term results of the consumption of high amounts showed no toxic effects. During the trial, which lasted two years, participants were consuming an average of 1.5kgrs of the natural sweetener per month and the maximum intake for one day was 430gr(4).
Q: Is it a Drug?
A: No it is not a drug, it is a natural food additive that is mostly used as a sweetener in foods and other products like chewing gum or in granular form.
Q: Does it really promote dental health?
A: The evidence from the published studies in scientific journals show that yes, it really promotes dental health. You can read more about the effects it has on oral health and the underlying mechanisms here.
Q: How much do I need to use to have any beneficial results?
A: Most experts agree that 6grams per day is usually enough.
Q: Is it completely side effects free?
A: No, it does have a couple of gastrointestinal side effects, mainly bloating and diarrhea. However these side effects appear only when people consume it above their laxation threshold. You can also check this article that goes into more detail about the potential side effects.
Q: What is this laxation threshold you are talking about?
A: Laxation threshold is simply the amount ingested before any gastrointestinal side effect and discomfort appear. This obviously isn’t really helpful because it brings up the simple question “So what is my laxation threshold?”. I am afraid I can not answer this question since it varies from person to person. However, most people can tolerate doses of 6-10 grams that are enough to experience its benefits.
Q: Is it safe for diabetics?
A: The short answer is yes. It is considered a good alternative for diabetics since it has a low glycemic index (7) and 40% fewer calories than sugar. You can read more about xylitol and diabetes in this article, but don’t forget to also consult with you doctor.
Q: Is it safe for kids?
A: Yes, as a matter of fact a lot of the published research studies where performed with kids.
Q: I am pregnant/breast feeding, can I use it?
A: It is considered to be safe both during pregnancy and lactation. Additionally, research has shown that it may even be beneficial since it reduces the mother to child transmission of S. Mutans bacteria that are responsible for dental caries.
Q: I am taking X medication, is it safe to use it?
A: No interactions have ever been reported in any of the available studies that I am aware of. So yes it should be safe. However it is always advisable to consult with your physician for matters like this.
Q: Can I use it for baking?
A: Yes you can. The only thing that you should keep in mind is that it cannot be fermented by yeast and as a result it is probably better to not use it in recipes that require yeast. Generally, you can substitute sugar with an equal amount of xylitol since they are equally sweet, but if you are looking for more detailed information and recipes you might want to check out “Sweeten Your Life the Xylitol Way” by Karren Edwards PhD
Q: Does it have a bad aftertaste like other sweeteners?
A: No, it tastes exactly like sugar and doesn’t have a bad or metallic aftertaste.
Q: Does it have any other benefits?
A: There evidence that it actually has quite a few more benefits. However, it is important to note that most of them are not well documented yet. You can read more about them here.
- Washüttl J, Reiderer P & Bancher E (1973) A qualitative and quantitative study of sugar-alcohols in several foods. J Food Sci 38: 1262-1263.
- Hollman S & Touster O (1964) Non-Glycolytic Pathways of Metabolism of Glucose. Academic Press, New York, p 276.
- Ly KA, Milgrom F, Rothen M (2006) Xylitol, Sweeteners and Dental Caries. Pediatr Dent 28(2): 254-63.
- Mäkinen KK (1976). “Long-term tolerance of healthy human subjects to high amounts of xylitol and fructose: general and biochemical findings”. Int Z Vitam Ernahrungsforsch Beih 15: 92–104.