Xylitol is actually a 5-carbon sugar alcohol known more specifically as a polyalcohol (polyol) and has been in use since the 1960’s. You can find it in foods for special dietary purposes and a variety of sugar-free cookies, candies, mints and chewing gums.
Unlike other synthetic sweeteners such as sorbitol, lactitol, mannitol, maltitol, xylitol boosts a natural flavour and has no after-taste. This natural sweetener also claims to facilitate weight loss as it has 40 percent fewer calories than sugar. Because of its low glycemic index value of only 7, this sugar alcohol has become a popular choice with diabetes or people with hypoglycaemia. It has minimal effect on blood sugar levels and does not require insulin to metabolize. Some of the best known sources of this sugar substitute are berries, mushrooms, and lettuce.
However, even these foods with the highest concentrations contain only a puny amount of the sugar. For instance, one cup of raspberries contains only less than one gram of it. As a result, this sugar substitute is commercially produced through the hydrogenation of wood sugar (zylose) derived from the xylan hemicellulose polymer found in hardwoods, corn husks, birch trees, oats, nut shells, etc. The whole chemical process is energy intensive and large scale, thus making this sugar alcohol ten times pricier than table sugar, sucrose.
Also, I must mention that as much as its manufacturer claims that it’s 100% natural sugar, the way this sweetener has been treated and processed to extract the sugar crystals surely just doesn’t sound as healthy or quite the same as something that naturally occurs in fruits and vegetable, does it? It’s just hard to think of it as a healthy sugar when it’s been so highly processed.
Another famous health claim of this sugar is its ability to kill bacteria and prevent tooth decay and oral disease. It is also said to help reduce plaque and inhibit existing cavities from worsening. Like most sugar alcohols, it can produce a mild laxative effect at high doses. According to a study conducted in 1977, consuming 1.4 ounces of the sugar alcohol per day will cause diarrhoea in many subjects. Its manufacturer declared that in doses of larger than 15 grams, which is approximately 3 teaspoons, the sweetener is not safe for everyone to use. Lab tests revealed that 1.65 grams of it could cause death in a 100gram rat. A typical piece of xylitol-gum contains 0.7 – 1 gram of xylitol, meaning that about half the amount of the sweetener is needed to kill a rat. So then, how concerned should one be about consuming this sweetener, especially if it given in a kid or pet oral health product?