Xylitol low calorie substitute

Xylitol is a lower-calorie sugar substitute with a low glycemic index. Some research suggests that it may also improve dental health, prevent ear infections, and possess antioxidant properties.

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol, which is a type of carbohydrate and does not actually contain alcohol. It occurs naturally in small amounts in fibrous fruits and vegetables, trees, corncobs, and even the human body.

Manufacturers use it as a sugar substitute because its sweetness is comparable with that of table sugar but with fewer calories.

It is also a common ingredient in many products, from sugar-free chewing gum to toothpaste. People also use it as a table-top sweetener and in baking.

This article looks at the uses and potential health benefits of xylitol. It also covers its side effects, drug interactions, dosage, and alternatives.

Uses

Xylitol sweetener on wooden spoons
A low-calorie alternative to sugar.

Xylitol has a similar level of sweetness to sugar but with a fraction of the calories. It is a popular ingredient in a variety of products, including sugar-free gum and toothpaste.

Manufacturers add it to a range of foods, including:

  • sugar-free candies, such as gum, mints, and gummies
  • jams and jellies
  • honey
  • nut butter, including peanut butter
  • yogurt

It is also an ingredient in some dental care products, including:

  • toothpaste
  • mouthwash
  • other fluoride products

Potential benefits

Xylitol has several potential health benefits, including:

Low glycemic index

It has a low glycemic index (GI). This means that consuming it does not cause spikes in blood glucose or insulin levels in the body. For this reason, xylitol is a good sugar substitute for people with diabetes.

Due to its low GI, it is also a weight loss-friendly sugar substitute.

Also, a 2015 study revealed that it had significant blood glucose-lowering effects in rats that ate high-fat diets.

Dental health

Xylitol is an ingredient in many dental hygiene products, including toothpaste and mouthwash. This is due to the fact that it is non-fermentable, which means that the bacteria in the mouth cannot convert it into the harmful acid that causes tooth decay.

The oral bacterium Streptococcus mutans is largely responsible for plaque, which is the sticky, white substance that can accumulate on the outside of a person’s teeth.

Plaque binds lactic acid against the surface of the tooth. This acid breaks down the enamel and leads to tooth decay.

While it is normal for people to have some plaque on their teeth, excess amounts can lead to tooth decay, cavities, and gum disease.

A 2017 systematic review suggests that xylitol reduces the amount of S. mutans bacteria in the mouth, which reduces the amount of plaque and may help prevent tooth decay.

A 2014 study examined it on Porphyromonas gingivalis, which is the bacterium responsible for gingivitis, or gum disease. If left untreated, excess amounts of P. gingivalis can move into the bloodstream and lead to systemic inflammation.

In the study, scientists grew samples of P. gingivalis in a laboratory and added them to human cell cultures pretreated with xylitol. They saw that xylitol increased the production of immune system proteins and inhibited the growth of the bacteria.

Ear infections

Xylitol may help prevent ear infections.
Xylitol may help prevent ear infections.

The bacteria that cause tooth plaque can also accumulate behind the eardrum and cause infections of the middle ear. Doctors call these infections acute otitis media (AOM).

A 2016 systematic review found moderate-quality evidence that chewing gum, lozenges, or syrup containing xylitol can reduce the occurrence of AOM from 30 to 22 percent among healthy children.

However, a 2014 study found xylitol syrup to be ineffective in reducing AOM in children at high risk of the infection.

These conflicting results indicate the need for more research regarding the use of xylitol as a preventive treatment for ear infections in children.

Antioxidant properties

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, free radicals cause oxidative stress, which can lead to cell damage and may play a role in the development of several conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Laboratory studies show that antioxidants neutralize free radicals and counteract oxidative stress.

A 2014 study revealed that xylitol may have antioxidant properties. Diabetic rats who ate xylitol produced higher amounts of glutathione. This is an antioxidant that counteracts the harmful effects of free radicals. It is important to note that human studies are needed to validate these findings.

Side effects and safety

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved xylitol as a food additive. It is generally safe, but like other sugar alcohols, it can cause digestive issues such as bloating and diarrhea in some people.

It is worth noting that this substance can be very toxic to dogs. It is vital to store products containing xylitol in a safe place that pets cannot reach. Anyone who thinks that their dog has consumed xylitol should call their veterinarian or the Animal Poison Control Center immediately.

Drug interactions

Currently, xylitol has no known interactions with prescription or over-the-counter medications. Always consult a doctor about potential interactions when starting new medications or supplements, however.

Dosage

The suitable dosage of xylitol can vary from person to person. A 2016 review found that adults can safely tolerate between 10 grams (g) and 30 g  per day, which they usually divide into several smaller doses. After the body adapts, adults can consume up to 70 g per day without side effects.

Studies in children have used doses of up to 45 g daily. Some research suggests that consuming around 5–6 g  per day may help reduce plaque-causing bacteria in the mouth.

However, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry says that more research is necessary before recommending xylitol to improve dental health in children.

Alternatives to xylitol

Syrup or nectar in a glass bowl
Agave nectar is an alternative sweetener

Manufacturers use a range of low-calorie artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes to sweeten foods and beverages. Many of these substitutes are also available as table-top sweeteners, and some people use them in baking.

Some substitutes are significantly sweeter than table sugar. However, its sweetness is very similar to that of table sugar.

Other artificial sweeteners and sugar substitutes include:

Sorbitol

Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol with a similar molecular structure to xylitol. Sorbitol does not spike blood glucose levels, so it is a good sugar substitute for people who have diabetes.

Like xylitol, bacteria cannot break down sorbitol into the acids that cause tooth decay.

Erythritol

Erythritol is another sugar alcohol. Similarly to xylitol, erythritol also inhibits the growth of S. mutans.

A 2016 review found that high concentrations of erythritol are more effective at reducing oral plaque than both xylitol and sorbitol. However, xylitol is more effective than erythritol at lower concentrations.

Stevia

Stevia is a natural sweetener that manufacturers extract from the stevia plant. Stevia extract is available in granular and liquid forms. Purified leaf extract is 250–300 times sweeter than sugar.

Like xylitol, stevia can sometimes cause diarrhea and other digestive issues.

Agave nectar

Agave nectar is a syrup that manufacturers extract from the agave plant and use as a sugar substitute in some drinks and foods.

However, agave nectar mainly contains fructose, which bacteria in the mouth can break down into the acids that cause tooth decay.

Summary

Xylitol is a reduced-calorie sugar substitute similar in sweetness to table sugar. It also has a low GI, which makes it an attractive alternative to sugar for people wishing to lose weight and those with diabetes.

Some research also suggests that this compound has antibacterial properties that can help prevent tooth decay, gum disease, and ear infections. However, further research into the potential health benefits of xylitol is needed.

Climate change and supplement industry

Recent mainstream media reports about climate change leave one wondering where the planet is headed when considering its effect on the supplement industry. Two are especially harrowing.

Ice disappearing because of climate change

climage change

In late September, the National Snow and Ice Data Center based at the University of Colorado, Boulder released its annual report on the extent of Arctic sea ice.  The report showed that at its lowest extent, the Arctic ice pack covered about 1.77 million square miles. This is tied for the sixth lowest extent on record.  In the past twelve years, the ice pack matched or exceeded the 1981-2010 average minimum of 2.4 million square miles only once.

“This year’s minimum is relatively high compared to the record low extent we saw in 2012, but it is still low compared to what it used to be in the 1970s, 1980s and even the 1990s,” said NASA climate change senior scientist Claire Parkinson. (NASA supports the ice data center.)

Insects are too

Another even more sobering report was published late last month in The New York Times.  Titled “The Insect Apocalypse is Here,” the report looked at still poorly understood population declines across insect species.  Conducting population studies is unglamorous, rigorous, time-consuming and grueling work, the article noted, which is why few of them have been done.

But the few that have been done have turned in alarming results. The Times article detailed a 2013 German study on insect abundance that was the work of a group of highly skilled and committed citizen scientists.

“The German study found that, measured simply by weight, the overall abundance of flying insects in German nature reserves had decreased by 75 percent over just 27 years. If you looked at midsummer population peaks, the drop was 82 percent,” the article noted.

Another researcher, entomologist Arthur Shapiro of the University of California Davis, has for the past 46 years been walking the same transects in California’s Central Valley and the Sierra Nevada foothills counting butterflies.  He has noticed a similar dearth of individuals as was seen in Germany.

Similar declines have been noted in a rain forest study in Puerto Rico.  The insects there have not been contending with pesticides and habitat loss, two concerns mentioned in the German study, which leads researchers to point to global temperature induced rise as the probable culprit.

Climate change is responsible

Despite White House tweets to the contrary, worldwide scientific consensus attributes blame for rising temperatures on increased greenhouse gas emissions which cause climate change.  These come from smokestacks at factories and power plants, from the tailpipes of hundreds of millions of vehicles and from the burning of tropical woodlands to create cattle ranches or palm oil plantations.

climate change and supplementsWhere does the dietary supplement industry fit into that equation?  From a practical standpoint, the industry’s footprint is minuscule.  Some ingredients, like fish oils, tropical botanicals, or krill oil, might get shipped around the globe more than once when all of the extraction, formulation and packaging steps are taken into account. But even so, the carbon footprint of these materials is still not even a rounding error when it comes to the global emissions problem.

So, should supplement companies just wave their hands and say, ‘not my problem?’

Effecting change

It appears this is an ethical consideration, not a marketing-driven one.  After all, how much does it matter if a company can nudge a particular consumer’s personal health needle in a positive direction if the environment that person is living in is falling off the edge of the table?

“I think absolutely supplement companies can be part of the solution,” consultant Steve Hoffman told NutraIngredients-USA. Hoffman, who is a principal in the consulting firm Compass Natural, was also tapped by Colorado governor-elect Jared Polis to serve as an adviser to his transition team as part of the on the Natural Resources & Energy and Agriculture committee.

Hoffman pointed to certain brands, such as Mercola, that have made big commitments to sustainable packaging. The energy that goes into packaging and shipping is part of the equation.  Other companies have made commitments toward restricting the flow of waste material off-site, or have announced goals for use of renewable energy.

Other brands such as Gaia Herbs and MegaFood, have committed to supporting regenerative agriculture. This is a concept that goes a step beyond traditional organic farming concerns, which is more about the nature of inputs.  It looks at the role agriculture can play in supporting local biodiversity (remember those insect declines?), creating rather than depleting topsoil and lessening the overall carbon footprint of agriculture.

The idea has coalesced into plans for certification called Regenerative Organic Certified.  Brands participating in the founding discussions are Horizon Organic, Guayaki, and Maple Hill Creamery.

Part of the solution

All of these may be small steps, mere drops in the ocean of the global climate change debate.  But it is also true that every journey can only begin from where you are.

As the author and activist Eldridge Cleaver is reputed to have said, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”