Is Xylitol Good For You?
Xylitol is a sweetener that seems to be winning the popularity contest amongst consumer’s desire for no calorie sweeteners. Claims support that it is “all natural”, safe for diabetic and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry supports the use of xylitol for oral health benefits (5).
But is xylitol good for you and should it be classified as a healthy sweetener? Depending on your health circumstances, you may want to avoid intake when possible or other otherwise limit your daily consumption.
What is Xylitol?
Xylitol is a type of sugar alcohol known as a polyol and categorized along with other popular sweeteners you may have heard of including sorbitol, mannitol, lactiol and maltiol. Such sweeteners are created in a process known as “hydrogenation”- a process you have likely already heard of in many processed foods harmful to health. (1)
Although xylitol can be found naturally occurring in small concentrations of foods like berries, cauliflower and plums, it is typically prepared from its original form xylose (2). Compounds that make up xylose are chemically swapped for oxygen and hydrogen resulting in the low glycemic sweetener (1). This fact that xylitol is found in nature and is derived from a natural product allows government authorities to loosely regulate the labeling requirements of food manufacturers.
Numerous studies report that this sugar alcohol has no effect on blood glucose levels and in fact it is broken down in a process that does not rely on insulin secretion. Xylitol cannot be fully digested and absorbed within the human gastrointestinal tract and up to 20% of this compound is shown to be excreted in urine. In fact, only 50% of this sugar alcohol is understood to be absorbed by the small intestine begging the concern that this sweetener may have toxic effects from accumulating in the liver. (1)
Oral Health Benefits
Xylitol is largely found in oral hygiene products including toothpastes, mouthwash, chewing gums, and mints and is intended to promote therapeutic benefits for oral health.
If we do not yet fully understand where all components of this sugar alcohol are broken down and absorbed in the body, why has it gained popularity you should ask? It contains antimicrobial defenses against infectious bacteria such as pneumococcus known to cause pneumonia and meningitis. It also prevents the growth of harmful bacteria likely by causing a toxic effect within the encapsulated bacterium. (3)
In order to reap the antimicrobial benefits of sugar alcohol, it is recommended to consume products only containing pure xylitol without any other added sweeteners or in combination with foods containing sweetener. The presence of other sugars and sugar substitutes inhibits it’s ability to degrade and prevent bacteria growth (3).
The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies acetaldehyde as a highly toxic class 1 carcinogen. In other words, acetaldehyde is a compound sufficiently evidenced well enough to be labeled cancer causing in humans. This mutagenic product results from alcohol fermentation that harmful bacteria in the mouth can produce in large quantities. When ethanol found in alcohol is mixed with saliva, a reaction occurs to create acetaldehyde. (4)
Xylitol has been shown to inhibit microbes from producing acetaldehyde during the fermentation process. It can even completely eliminate this carcinogenic activity for some bacterial strains. The concentrations of this sugar alcohol used in such studies support that this anti-carcinogenic property can be obtained from chewing xylitol sweetened gum often throughout the course of a single day.
Lung Cancer Therapy:
A new study recently performed experimental treatment involving the effects of xylitol on cancer cells. What researchers found is that this sugar alcohol actually may have therapeutic benefits at treating lung cancer. It was shown to inhibit cell proliferation of specific lung cancer cells and allow for natural cell destruction of cancer cells, a process known as autophagy. (6)
Warnings for Xylitol Consumption
Xylitol may sound like the perfect sweetener suitable for consumption by all individuals but it does not come without pitfalls. Unfortunately, conflicting evidence supports whether or not xylitol is a good sweetener because long term studies are limited in assessing its effects on health.
Potential for Metabolic Disturbance:
As previously mentioned, xylitol is not fully absorbed by the GI (gastrointestinal) tract. Therefore it may be likely that this sugar alcohol accumulates in the liver and may have toxic consequences when used in large quantities over extended periods and may lead to metabolic disturbances.
Xylitol is in a class of fermentable carbohydrates called polyols. A large quantity of xylitol is passed to the colon and fermented by bacteria. The microflora here utilizes the sweetener to produce fatty acids as well as hydrogen and methane gas. As a result, these gases are associated with gas, abdominal cramping, bloating, constipation and diarrhea (5).
Evidence suggest that more than 10 grams of sugar alcohols daily can cause these GI symptoms which may be easily consumed unknowingly due to its increase in presence in products but not on labels. (1) As a result, individuals with gastrointestinal issues sensitive to fermentable sugars should avoid sugar alcohols all together.
People with gut complications such as irritable bowel syndrome, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) and Crohn’s disease may experience an increase of GI disturbances exacerbated by sugar alcohols.
What foods you consume with xylitol and various nutritional components of foods containing this sugar alcohol may affect your ability to absorb each component. Ingesting sugar alcohols can limit the ability for other nutrients like fats and carbs to be properly metabolized.
Clinical trials have also shown that consumption of sugar alcohols can cause appetite dysregulation resulting in a lack of satiety and an overall increase in fat consumption. (1)
As a whole group, sugar alcohols can interact with drugs (1). Especially those drugs used by diabetics to manage weight should limit xylitol consumption.
Caution for Pet Owners:
Too many instances of dogs ingesting foods containing xylitol have left pet owners with tough lessons to be learned. The amount of this sugar alcohol found in a few cookies, a pack of gum and even English muffins is enough of the compound to cause severe hypoglycemica (low blood sugar) and life threatening liver failure in man’s best friend (7).
Although xylitol is a healthier alternative than sugar and high fructose products like agave, xylitol is best in small quantities even in the healthiest of people.