What is Xylitol?

Have you ever been stuck with an X and a Y during a Words with friends or Scrabble game and needed to get rid of them ?   Try the word Xylitol.  Maybe you have heard of it or maybe you haven’t but it is an amazing solution to your oral health and your game play!

Xylitol: The History

 Xylitol was first discovered in 1891 in birch trees in Finland.  It didn’t really take off until the sugar rations during World War II.  Finland was looking for a sweet substitute to the sugar that was going toward the war effort.  Produced by the Finnish Sugar company, Finns were using the sweet stuff to replace sugar in many of their sweets and their coffee. 

 After the war was over, the Finns starting using sugar again and scientists started noticing changes in the countries health and they studied those changes.  Diabetes and tooth decay were on the rise!  In the 1960’s, they recommended those with diabetes use xylitol due to the low glycemic index.  More research was done in the 70s that discovered during the tooth decay rate was lower(about 85% lower!) in those that had consumed xylitol instead of sugar. There were also studies that showed that plaque build up by 50% in those that used xylitol. 

 Xylitol is not an artificial sweetener, like aspartame or sucralose. It is produced by plants and animals.  First discovered in birch trees it is now more commonly produced from corn cobs and corn stalks. Xylitol can be found naturally in many unusual places.  In fact, our bodies naturally make 5-10 grams of the stuff every day.

The Health Benefits

 It has 40% less calories than other carbohydrates.  For example, sugar has 4 calories per gram where as, xylitol only had 2.4 calories per gram.   It has a low glycemic index.  The GI index measures the affects of foods on blood glucose levels. 

Some examples:

Glucose = 100

Table sugar= 68

Honey = 55

Fructose = 19

Xylitol = 7

 

A low GI index can lower the risk of heart disease, control diabetes, lower blood cholesterol, control hunger, prolong physical activity and help in recovery. 

 Xylitol has been found beneficial enough for overall health and oral health to be promoted by the US Army with their “Look for Xylitol First” campaign and including it in their Ready-To-Eat meals since 2000. 

 It should be pointed out that Xylitol has some down sides, as all things do.  First, xylitol is lethal to dogs.  So if you have a pet it’s best to keep it out of paws-reach.  Secondly, xylitol can cause some GI distress if too much is consumed to quickly, however, this subsides after about a week of use as the body adjusts.  This in fact is a good thing as it encourages good bacteria to grow in the gut.

The Oral Health Benefits 

 Well it’s all about the bacteria that are living on our teeth and gums.  There are millions and millions of individual bacteria and over 300 species.  They are all fighting for space in your mouth.  Some are friendlier then others.  Some are more cavity-causing than others. To create a cavity, what bacteria do is organize. They create sticky carbohydrate nets that attach themselves to the tooth surface and to each other.  They also prefer an acidic environment so the break down the sugars we eat and make acids that help them multiply.  It is this acid that breaks down our teeth and make cavities.  The more sugar we eat, the more they multiply and create more acid.

 So how does xylitol work to reduce cavities and plaque?  First, xylitol is easily consumed by the bacteria, just like sugar. However, once inside, the bacteria doesn’t have the metabolism machinery to break it down.  The bacteria has to get rid of it and so it has to spend it’s energy pumping the xylitol out.  And since it can’t metabolize the xylitol, it can’t produce the acids and carbohydrate nets, so the bacteria lose their hold on the tooth surface and slide off.  And that is how plaque and cavities are reduced.

How xylitol is used

 Xylitol is fairly versatile as a sweetener.  It can be used in baking cakes and cookies, a sweetener for tea and coffee, and it can be used on cereal and fruit. It can even be used to make candy like taffy and caramels.  It cannot be used for baking breads since yeast need sugar to make it rise and it can’t be used in hard candies because it doesn’t crystallize. 

 Xylitol can be readily found in gum and mints which make it easy to use to get the benefits to oral health.  It is recommended that you chew 6.5 grams for no more than 5 minutes from 3-5 times a day.  It’s best to do this after eating or snacks. If you are looking for mints or gums that will provide the most benefits aim for xylitol as one of the first ingredients and not combined with artificial sweeteners like sorbitol and maltitol as these have been found to reduce the effectiveness of xylitol.

 It can also be found in toothpastes and mouth rinses. And works synergistically with fluoride to create strong teeth and healthy gums.

Xylitol and the New Mom

 Many new mothers are concerned about giving their infant the best chance for a healthy life.  Xylitol can help with this too.  Studies have shown that oral bacteria (S. mutans was specifically studied) is transferred from mother to child between 19-33 months.  Also if this bacteria can avoid transfer before the age of 2 years old the child has much less tooth decay.  It has also been found that a parent that uses xylitol regularly stops the transmission of cavity-causing bacteria.  Another interesting use of xylitol is the decrease of ear infections. There are special xylitol nose sprays that can be used to decrease the symptoms and duration of ear infections by utilizing those bacteria’s inability to metabolize xylitol.

 

So there you have it!  Xylitol can help your oral health and your Scrabble game!