Xylitol is an alternative sweetener containing fewer calories than sugar and a respectable benefit package, including a low rating on the glycemic index (GI) scale.
Compared to table sugar (rated between 60 and 70 on the GI scale), xylitol clocks in at 7, which means it won’t spike blood sugar levels. (1) Sugar delivers 4 calories for every gram you ingest, and xylitol only knocks you back 2.4 per gram.
A naturally-occurring sweetener found in small quantities in certain fruits and vegetables, xylitol shares another attribute with sugar besides the ability to stimulate taste buds: the commercial processing renders it essentially devoid of nutrients.
So it’s still empty calories, but not as many.
Classified as a sugar alcohol, xylitol is made through an industrial process from xylan (2), a plant fiber. The designation of sugar alcohol doesn’t mean it’s intoxicating; it refers to the molecular structure, a hybrid of alcohol and sugar.
Xylitol is safe for anyone, including children and alcoholics.
Xylitol looks, tastes and acts almost exactly the same as sugar, and is an excellent alternative sweetener choice.
Here are 7 reasons to keep it on the shelf.
- Lower Glycemic Rating and Calorie Content
At less than half the calories of sugar, xylitol is a popular choice for anyone watching carb intake. It delivers sweet flavor without spiking blood sugar levels, so it’s weight-loss friendly and easy for diabetics to incorporate into their diets. (3)
Because it doesn’t contain any fructose, the troublemaker in sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), xylitol won’t play havoc with your metabolism. (4)
- Improves Dental Health
While sugar has always been the villain in regard to dental health, xylitol plays the opposite role, which is why dentists often recommend xylitol-sweetened gum.
Due to the way it interacts with bacteria found in the mouth, xylitol actually discourages the formation of cavities. (7) It also reduces gum inflammation, making it less likely you’ll develop gingivitis.
Streptococcus mutans, the bacteria primarily responsible for plaque formation, usually feed on glucose from food we eat. They can’t utilize xylitol, but they ingest it anyway, essentially clogging intake pathways so they end up starving and dying off. (8)
Bad bacteria levels can drop up to 75%, while the good bacteria aren’t affected. (9) One study noted a reduction in the incidence of cavities by subjects chewing xylitol-sweetened gum ranged between 30% and 80%. (10)
Xylitol offers even more oral health benefits: (11)
- Drops acidity of saliva, protecting tooth enamel from degradation
- Bumps up calcium absorption in the digestive system (12)
- Increases saliva production, making more calcium and phosphorus available for tooth remineralization
- Helps Prevent Ear Infections
Ear, mouth and nose cavities are all connected, so the interaction between bacteria like those that cause plaque formation and contribute to dental cavities works in our favor in other areas as well.
Because xylitol feeds harmful bacteria throughout the system, it decreases the risk of developing ear infections. (13)
One study of children who suffered from recurrent ear infections showed those who used xylitol dropped the rate of infection by 40% (14), which could mean cutting doctor visits by almost half.
- Discourages Candida Overgrowth
Candida albicans is a yeast or fungus that occurs normally in the body at low levels. Certain medications like antibiotics or steroids upset the balance, leading to overgrowth in warm, moist places like the throat and mouth. (15)
Infants, the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system are especially vulnerable, and the condition can lead to serious health issues.
While other sugars containing fructose, maltose and glucose encourage the growth of oral candida albicans yeast, xylitol does the opposite.
Candida yeast establishes itself in the mouth and throat through adhering to epithelial cells lining surfaces; xylitol decreases the ability of candida albicans to attach, making it more difficult for an overgrowth to occur. (16)
- Increases Collagen Production
We have more collagen in our bodies than any other protein, concentrated mostly in connective tissues and skin. As we age, we produce less collagen, as well as the elastin that keeps skin smooth and firm.
When collagen production drops, skin and connective tissues change in character, causing more wrinkles and sagging, as well as decreasing the skin’s natural ability to avoid sun damage. (17)
Animal studies with xylitol suggest it may be effective in bumping up collagen levels, leading to thicker and smoother skin. (18)
Eating sugar has exactly the opposite effect.
- Potentially Helpful in Maintaining Better Bone Health
Osteoporosis is the most common metabolic bone disease in America, affecting up to half of post-menopausal women. (19)
Bone density decreases with osteoporosis, making fractures more likely.
While the effects of xylitol on human bone mass haven’t yet been tested, rats fed xylitol increased bone mass and bone mineral levels. (20) Researchers believe constant low levels of xylitol may also help minimize age-related bone deterioration in humans.
- Feeds Friendly Gut Bacteria
The beneficial effects of cultivating healthy bacterial colonies in the gut are becoming more widely understood, and xylitol can play a positive role.
In tests comparing the response of humans and rats to xylitol feeding, changes in gut bacterial activity were small, but fecal measurements made significant positive shifts. (21)
Xylitol appears to act much like a soluble fiber on this level.
Warnings and Usage
Xylitol is reasonably priced and widely available. Moderation is important during introduction; too much can cause digestive distress, including gas, bloating or diarrhea. (22)
Most people don’t have problems starting with a small amount over the first few days. Children should do fine with up to 20 grams of xylitol daily.
If you have a dog, make sure it doesn’t get any food containing xylitol; if you think it might have ingested a small amount, see your vet immediately.
Canine systems react differently than humans, secreting large amounts of insulin, triggering uptake of glucose from the bloodstream that can lead to low blood sugar, which can be fatal. (23)
Summary: Xylitol is a clear front-runner on the alternative sweetener scene; give it a test drive next time your sweet tooth starts throbbing, and enjoy guilt-free indulgence while building better health.