Xylitol is truly the darling of sugar substitutes today. The American Dietetic Association touts use of xylitol as offering health benefits such as reduced glycemic response as compared with sucrose, increased absorption of B vitamins and calcium, and even a reduction in dental caries risk.
Consequently, people with blood sugar issues are flocking to processed foods containing xylitol as a way to satisfy that sweet tooth without the downside of exacerbating the risk factors for Metabolic Syndrome: heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Even within the healthfood community, xylitol is almost universally considered a healthy substitute for sugar in particular because it doesn’t directly contribute toward the growth of intestinal yeasts aka Candida.
Have you noticed that the check out aisles at healthfood stores are typically loaded with chocolates and other sweets containing at least some xylitol? The truth is that I have yet to talk with any healthy conscious person who suggests to me any downside to using xylitol other than the potential for intestinal cramps if you get too much.
Xylitol is Naturally Found in Nature
Xylitol is, after all, a naturally occurring substance. Manufacturers of xylitol market it as derived from xylan, which is found in the fibers of many plants including berries, oats, beets, sugar cane and birch. Sounds pretty harmless.
The FDA has even granted xylitol GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status. You can’t get any safer than that, right?
While it is true that xylitol is a naturally occurring substance, manufactured xylitol is another matter entirely. Commercially available xylitol is produced by the industrialized process of sugar hydrogenation. In order to hydrogenate anything, a catalyst is needed, and in the case of xylitol, Raney nickel is used which is a powdered nickel-aluminum alloy.
Can we say heavy metal residue? Xylitol doesn’t seem quite so warm and fuzzy anymore, does it?
While there is currently no literature on any detrimental health effects of consuming hydrogenated sugar, it is important to note that hydrogenated fats and oils were used for many years before the very damaging effects to health became widely known.
Given the violent industrialized process that is required to produce a hydrogenated sugar like xylitol, it would seem wise to avoid it based on the very poor track record of hydrogenated foods in general!
Most Xylitol Comes from GMO Corn
While it is true that xylitol can be derived from the xylan of birch trees, xylan is also found in corn cobs. It is much cheaper to use corn instead of birch bark to derive xylitol and so what do you think manufacturers prefer? Corn of course.
Therefore, unless the label of a xylitol containing product specifically notes that it is from birch, beets or some other non GMO source, run of the mill corn derived xylitol is very likely from genetically modified corn. This is the same problem as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) widely used in sodas and sports drinks.
You get a dose of GMOs with every sip!
Xylitol Contributes to Gut Imbalance
Sugar alcohols like xylitol are not broken down in the stomach like other sweeteners. Rather, they arrive intact into the intestines.
At that point, a process called “passive diffusion” takes place whereby the xylitol draws water into the bowels. This results in only partial breakdown of the xylitol. The unmetabolized portion ferments; the perfect environment for undesirable bacteria to grow.
And, while it is true that xylitol itself does not feed candida directly like sugar does and is even promoted as a useful part of the Candida Diet, the fermentation of undigested xylitol in the gut most definitely can exacerbate yeast problems, so don’t be fooled by that argument!
This is exactly why consuming xylitol can make some folks so gassy and even trigger cramping and diarrhea. Gut pathogens having a heyday in your intestines give off a lot of smelly toxins!
Other Little Known Problems with Xylitol
Xylitol can contribute to acid reflux problems so those who have issues in this area should avoid it for that reason alone. Chronic acid reflux is a serious problem that can lead to cancer of the esophagus and larynx.
In addition, those who suffer from seizures of any kind should stay away from xylitol as it has been known to increase the frequency of epileptic attacks.
According to lab tests, a 100 gram rat can be killed by approximately 1.65 grams of xylitol about half the time.
Two little pieces of xylitol gum contain about .7 – 1 gram of xylitol – enough to probably kill your child’s pet rat.
Do you want your child chewing xylitol gum on a frequent basis even if preliminary research indicates that it may help prevent cavities?
“Epidemiology: No information found
Teratogenicity: No information found
Reproductive Effects: No information found
Mutagenicity: No information found
Neurotoxicity: No information found”
When Might Xylitol be Helpful?
Given all the problems that consumption of xylitol can trigger, it seems best to bypass use of this sugar substitute on a regular basis.
Can xylitol ever be helpful, however?
Potentially so. The only time I personally would ever consider using xylitol is to help resolve a childhood ear or sinus infection in order to prevent the use of antibiotics.
There is evidence that xylitol can indeed help encourage a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria found in the ear canal and sinus cavities and that a therapeutic dose of xylitol can help resolve an infection in these areas quickly with no medication required.
One caveat: If you are going to use xylitol sparingly and therapeutically (not as a food), make sure it does not come from a GMO source like corn!
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist