Xylitol: Not as Sweet As It’s Cracked Up to Be

by Sarah Healthy LivingComments: 492

xylitolXylitol is truly the darling of sugar substitutes today. The American Dietetic Association touts use of xylitol, a sugar alcohol sold alone and in a variety of processed foods, as offering health benefits such as reduced glycemic response 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?

xylitol dangersHow Xylitol is Manufactured

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. In the case of xylitol, Raney nickel is used which is a powdered nickel-aluminum alloy.

This poses the risk of heavy metal residue and contamination. Heavy metals in the body are notoriously difficult to eliminate with an infrared sauna probably a good idea.

Xylitol doesn’t seem quite so warm and fuzzy anymore, does it?

There is currently no literature on any detrimental health effects of consuming hydrogenated sugar. However, hydrogenated fats were used for decades before the very damaging effects to cardiovascular 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 Sourced 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! More on GMO dangers including sterility and stomach holes at the provided link.

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. This means that the xylitol draws water into the bowels. Only partial breakdown of the xylitol is the end result. The unmetabolized portion ferments providing the perfect environment for undesirable bacteria to thrive and grow.

It is true that xylitol itself does not feed candida directly like sugar does. As a result, this artificial sweetener is even promoted as a useful part of the Candida Diet. Unfortunately, the fermentation of undigested xylitol in the gut most definitely can exacerbate yeast problems. Don’t be fooled by this 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.

Xylitol in Two Pieces of Gum Can Kill a Rat

According to lab tests, a 100 gram rat can be killed half the time by approximately 1.65 grams of xylitol.

Two little pieces of xylitol gum contain about .7 – 1 gram of xylitol. This is probably enough to meet the definition of rat poison.xylitol rat poison

Xylitol for Preventing Cavities

Many people are chewing xylitol gum as science has shown a benefit for cavity prevention. What about for children, however?

Rami Nagel, author of Cure Tooth Decay, doesn’t even recommend xylitol gum for this purpose. His research for any long term safety data on xylitol turned up the following:

  • Epidemiology: No information found
  • Teratogenicity: No information found
  • Reproductive Effects: No information found
  • Mutagenicity: No information found
  • Neurotoxicity: No information found

In summary, using xylitol officially renders you a guinea pig my friend! It seems that any benefits of cavity prevention from xylitol are outweighed by the fact that there is no actual safety data backing up its use.

Xylitol Benefits?

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? Does it have any benefits whatsoever?

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. 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 this sugar alcohol sparingly and therapeutically (not as a food), make sure it does not come from a GMO source like corn!

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist


Sources and More Information

Sugar Free Blues: Everything You Wanted to Know about Artificial Sweeteners

Yacon: Healthy Syrup or Healthfood Hype?

Cure Tooth Decay by Rami Nagel

The Healthy Home Economist holds a Master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Mother to 3 healthy children, blogger, and best-selling author, she writes about the practical application of Traditional Diet and evidence-based wellness within the modern household. Her work has been featured by USA Today, The New York Times, ABC, NBC, and many others.

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