What is Xylitol?

Xylitol is a naturally-occurring sugar alternative that is found in a variety of plants and fruits.

Xylitol is a naturally-occurring sugar alternative that is found in a variety of plants and fruits. It was first discovered in the bark of birch trees, which gave it its name (‘xyl’ is the Greek word for wood). 

A shortage of sugar during the war years led to the discovery in Finland that xylitol was a very effective replacement sweetener. Over the years that followed, studies found that it contained 40% fewer calories than sugar and had a low GI value of just 7, making it a healthier alternative all round - particularly for diabetics as it does not raise blood glucose or insulin levels.

Xylitol is granular in appearance and looks almost identical to sugar. Taste-wise, it’s a lot less sweet than other sweeteners, so when you’re baking or cooking with xylitol, it can be conveniently swapped gram for gram with sugar. This is a far better way to add sweetness to your cake and biscuit recipes rather than using maple syrup, honey or agave - which, although often derived from natural unprocessed sources, are still sugar. 

Why swap sugar for xylitol?

It seems there has never been a more important time to address our sugar consumption. Government statistics show that, in 2014, 58% of women and 65% of men were overweight or obese, and obesity prevalence has increased from 15% in 1993 to 26% in 2014  . However, where once it was the fat content in foods that was blamed, now we know that sugar is also very much one of the bad guys.
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Xylitol is a naturally occurring sugar alternative, containing 40% fewer calories than sugar

In addition, recent statistics show that tooth decay is the single most common reason for five to nine year olds in England to be admitted to hospital, with many of those children needing multiple tooth extractions under general anaesthetic. 

These studies, the announcement of a proposed sugar tax, and the recent debate on sugar, have generated a flurry of media interest, with articles covering everything from the astonishing amount of hidden sugar in processed and convenience foods, to various recipes featuring alternative ways to sweeten your desserts. Strangely, what still isn’t being talked about widely is the impact of all this sugar on our oral health. Perhaps it isn’t surprising then that xylitol, that has for decades contributed to lower levels of tooth decay in Scandinavian countries, remains relatively unknown here.

The dental benefits of xylitol

Studies have shown that, when consumed regularly and in sufficient quantities, xylitol can improve oral health as it helps prevent plaque from adhering to teeth, thereby making it an effective contributing tool in the fight against tooth decay. Xylitol can be found in certain brands of sugar-free chewing gums, mints, toothpastes, and mouthwashes, and it could be used more in our daily diets too. 

Such is the belief in the benefits of xylitol in Finland that xylitol gum, sweets and mints have become a staple of the Finnish daily diet. Families often keep a jar of xylitol sweets or gum on hand and children and adults alike are encouraged to consume them after every meal or snack. The products are sold in large packs in most supermarkets alongside other confectionary. They are now recommended by all Finnish dental professionals, having been initially endorsed by the Finnish Dental Association in 1988.

In order to get the full benefit of xylitol’s plaque-reducing properties, it has to be consumed regularly and in quantities of at least 5g per day. This equates to around four pieces of 100% xylitol gum or about nine mints. It’s vital that the products are sweetened with 100% xylitol as anything less will not offer the same benefit. There are numerous other products on the market claiming to be xylitol-based but they often contain less than 50%. The key is to check that xylitol is the first ingredient listed or that it specifically says ‘100% xylitol’ on the packet.

It’s also important to note that while xylitol has benefits for humans, it’s highly toxic to our four-legged friends. Never let your dog or cat (or any other pet) eat xylitol as it can be fatal.

Published: August 18th, 2016   
1. Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet - England, 2016. Publication date: April 28, 2016
2. Faculty of Dental Surgery, Royal College of Surgeons. ‘The state of children’s oral health in England’ – January 2015. https://www.rcseng.ac.uk/fds/policy/documents/fds-report-on-the-state-of-childrens-oral-health