Low-Calorie Sweetener Xylitol: Facts and Info
Quick quiz: The low calorie sweetener xylitol is derived from:
a. birch trees
b. petroleum byproducts
c. cotton seed
If you answered “a”, birch trees, you’re right. Despite having a name that sounds like medicine, xylitol is actually a natural sweetener. It is as sweet as sugar, but has 40% less calories. While a gram of sugar has 4 calories, a gram of granular xylitol has just 2.4 calories. It was discovered in birch-tree-rich Finland in the 19th century and has been used as a sugar substitute in Europe for many years. It occurs naturally in many plant foods, including corn, oats, berries, mushrooms, and beets. Your body even makes a small amount of xylitol as a byproduct of metabolism.
Sugar Alcohol vs Sugar
Chemically speaking, xylitol is a 5-carbon sugar alcohol. Six-carbon sugars like fructose and glucose are absorbed quickly and stimulate insulin. Xylitol is absorbed more slowly, without stimulating insulin or increasing blood sugar. This makes it an ideal sweetener for diabetics, who need to keep blood sugar under control. And good news for teeth: The sugar-alcohol structure cannot be used by cavity-causing bacteria in the mouth. Finnish studies comparing use of xylitol-sweetened vs. sugar-sweetened chewing gum and tooth decay show dramatic reductions in cavities with xylitol gums. Even more interesting, xylitol appears to inhibit growth of bacteria that cause ear infections.
Xylitol in Food
Xylitol is available in granulated form, and can be used in food preparation much as regular sugar. The only drawback is a “cooling” or minty taste that would limit xylitol’s usefulness for some products. While gums and hard candies taste fine, chocolate ice cream or doughnuts might not. And unlike aspartame or saccharin, xylitol does have some calories. For example, a sugar-sweetened candy that has 100 calories would still have about 60 calories if sweetened with xylitol. It would have almost zero calories if sweetened with saccharin.
Xylitol Labeling Issues
Because xylitol does have some calories, products sweetened with it will still have some carbohydrates listed on the nutrition label. If the product is labeled “Sugar Free” the manufacturer must list the amount of sugar alcohols separately. If you’re a big consumer of sugar-free foods, you might want to pay attention to that number. Large daily intake of sugar alcohols, like xylitol, sorbitol and mannitol, can have a laxative effect. In general, most adults can tolerate 40 grams of these sweeteners per day. Some people with unexplained gas and bloating find relief by cutting back on sugar alcohol products.
What foods contain xylitol? Chewing gum, gum drops, hard candy, and other confectionary products for diabetics are sweetened with xylitol. In addition, you might be consuming xylitol in non-food products like throat lozenges, cough syrups, chewable vitamins, toothpastes, and mouthwashes. Xylitol is widely used overseas, especially in chewing gum.
People around the world like their sweets. As the obesity epidemic and calorie-consciousness go global, the demand for low-calorie sweeteners will be huge. Xylitol is another choice is the low-calorie arsenal. Even better, it has anti-cavity and possible anti-bacterial effects. In the future, look for food manufacturers to promote these benefits along with reduced calories. Cavity-fighting gum anyone?
ADA Position Paper: Nutritive and nonnutritive sweeteners. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2004; 104:256.
*This article is intended for general information purposes only, is not individual-specific, nor is it intended to replace the advice of your healthcare team.