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Xylitol – Birch Sugar As A Sugar Substitute

Xylitol is certainly familiar to most of you by now. For years, xylitol has been used not only as a sugar substitute but also successfully to prevent tooth decay. With the positive properties of the sugar substitute becoming known, interest in this birch sugar naturally grew over time.

What is xylitol?

Xylitol – also known as xylitol, birch sugar, pentanepentol, or E 967 – is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol that is formed in both plants and humans as part of sugar metabolism. Xylitol is also commercially available as a pure powder and is used as a sweetener.
Because it is a naturally occurring substance, our bodies can normally recognize, metabolize, and utilize xylitol. So it is not a foreign substance for our organism.

However, xylitol is deadly for dogs, so four-legged friends must never get hold of food or sweets that are sweetened with xylitol (see below under “Xylitol is deadly for dogs”).

How many calories and carbohydrates does Xylitol contain?

Since sugar alcohols are counted among the carbohydrates, xylitol is a carbohydrate, i.e. it consists of almost 100 percent carbohydrates. In contrast to e.g., B. Sugar but xylitol is metabolized differently, so xylitol per 100 g has only 240 kcal. Sugar is 400 calories.

Production of xylitol

The original production of xylitol, which was developed many years ago, is based on a chemical modification of wood sugar (xylose). Wood sugar is found, for example, in birch wood, straw, coconuts, or corn cobs and is also a waste product from paper production. The classic xylitol production from Finnish birch wood sugar is a very complex process, which is of course also expensive. Hence the name birch sugar.

Due to the increasing demand for xylitol, alternative manufacturing processes have been developed over time. Although these are much more efficient and cheaper for the producers, they are not necessarily better for the end consumer.

Xylitol from glucose

Xylitol can nowadays also be produced industrially from glucose. This process was derived from human sugar metabolism: Xylitol is produced from glucose in humans, as well as during this process, with the help of certain enzymes (amylase, glucose isomerase, pullulanase, etc.). But where do the enzymes and glucose for this process come from?

The glucose required is obtained from corn starch, for example, which can also come from genetically modified corn. In the EU, the cultivation of GM corn is quite low compared to the USA, but there is also xylitol, which was obtained from GM corn starch.

Now you might be thinking, “I wouldn’t buy something like that. That has to be labeled.” But it isn’t necessarily that.

Although there is a labeling requirement for additives that are produced directly from the starch of genetically modified maize, this labeling requirement does not necessarily apply to additives that are produced from the starch via various intermediate products.

However, since xylitol is produced in several steps, the legal situation here is not clearly clarified and one cannot rely on xylitol being labeled if it was made from genetically modified maize starch.

In addition, the enzymes used in the production of xylitol are mainly obtained from genetically modified microorganisms. This fact is also not subject to any labeling requirements.

Xylitol from GMOs

In addition to being obtained from glucose, xylitol can also be produced directly from genetically modified bacteria (GMOs = genetically modified organisms). These have been genetically modified in such a way that, to a certain extent, they no longer do anything other than produce xylitol. However, little is known about the benefits of this process in the industry. The most common method of xylitol production in the industry is still the enzymatic process via glucose.

Xylitol in BIO products

Organic Xylitol is not manufactured using genetically modified organisms. If it is important to you that the xylitol you use is non-GMO, it is best to contact the relevant manufacturer directly and ask them about it.

Xylitol as a sugar substitute

Conventional household sugar can have many negative properties, which is why there is always a search for a healthy sugar substitute. Xylitol is a good choice here because xylitol is a naturally occurring substance that tastes very close to the sweetening power of conventional sugar (sucrose), but hardly affects the blood sugar level and also has fewer calories than household sugar. In addition to the sweet taste, xylitol gives chewing gum a dental care and refreshing effect, and, unlike aspartame, no negative side effects are known for xylitol.

That all sounds very positive. If you consider that xylitol – like other sugar substitutes – has a laxative effect in large quantities, consumption should therefore be quite harmless – if not actually beneficial – for your health.

Xylitol in the gut

The laxative effect of xylitol is based on the fact that our small intestine can only absorb small amounts of the substance. As a result, a large part gets into the large intestine, where xylitol can lead to diarrhea due to its water-binding properties. However, if we get our body used to xylitol, i.e. consume xylitol more often, these negative effects will subside over time.

Xylitol for sugar addiction?

However, we dare to doubt whether replacing sugar with xylitol is the right way to free yourself from excessive sugar consumption or even from sugar addiction. We would rather advise overcoming the craving for sweets, which one has usually gotten used to over many years, and reducing the consumption of sweets in general.

The modern diet with flavor enhancers added sugars, and other artificial food additives have spoiled the taste of many people.

The saddest example here is the children who, for example, prefer artificial, extremely sweet fruit flavors to real, healthy fruits with natural sweetness, or in some cases no longer even know their natural taste.

A sugar addiction with its negative consequences is, to a certain extent, pre-programmed for children with such a disturbed sense of taste. However, this development can be prevented by adjusting children’s sense of taste to natural foods with the help of a healthy diet.

In a healthy context, the consumption of xylitol is definitely a good alternative to conventional table sugar.

Xylitol in the kitchen

Basically, we advise a very moderate use of sweeteners – no matter how healthy they may seem to be. Xylitol is an interesting alternative for the occasional sweet treat or on the way to a healthier diet (for anyone who wants to give up table sugar).

Xylitol can be used as a sugar substitute – for baking, cooking, sweetening desserts, etc. However, xylitol can have a laxative effect from a quantity of 0.5 grams per kilogram of body weight. Even small amounts can cause flatulence – depending on the sensitivity or individual xylitol adaptation of the person concerned.

However, it is known (as already mentioned) that the human organism can gradually get used to larger amounts of xylitol (up to 200 grams per person and day). For example, start with carefully sweetened desserts or drinks and then slowly increase the xylitol levels.

For example, if a cake recipe contains 200 grams of xylitol, then each piece of cake (for 12 pieces) will contain around 17 grams of xylitol. You should not eat more than one piece at first.

For children, however, these 17 grams can be far too much and – depending on the child’s body weight – lead to flatulence and/or diarrhea.

In terms of quantity, xylitol is used in exactly the same way as sugar. So you simply exchange the sugar for xylitol – but (as mentioned above) always in the amount that you can tolerate well or that you are used to.

With yeast dough, however, some additional sugar must be added (1 to 2 teaspoons), since the yeast needs “feed”.

Xylitol is deadly for dogs!

While the human organism knows xylitol from its own metabolism and has no problems with it, xylitol is extremely dangerous for dogs. Therefore, make absolutely sure that no dog can steal any of the dishes sweetened with xylitol.

Xylitol can cause very negative effects in dogs. In contrast to us humans, insulin release in dogs is increased enormously by xylitol, which leads to a drop in blood sugar levels and can have fatal consequences for the animal – even with the smallest amounts.

Symptoms such as trembling or swaying appear just a few minutes after eating the food sweetened with xylitol. In this case, inform your vet immediately so that he is prepared for you, put sugar water or honey in your dog’s mouth, and drive to the vet as soon as possible, who can still rescue your dog if you don’t waste time.

If your dog is one of the passionate kitchen thieves or you have small children who are particularly easily robbed or who keep slipping the dog something, it is better not to use xylitol in your household.

Since xylitol is also being used more and more as a sweetener, inform other dog owners about the danger and the need to act quickly if the dog has eaten xylitol.

Xylitol in oral hygiene

Apart from its sweetening power and the positive properties on the blood sugar level in humans, xylitol has – in humans – other positive properties that can be used in oral hygiene and dental care.

After the caries-reducing effect of xylitol was discovered in the 1970s, the sugar substitute increasingly came into the scientific limelight. There are now numerous studies showing that xylitol can reduce tooth decay in children and adults. Interestingly, even chewing gum containing xylitol during pregnancy appears to reduce the risk of tooth decay in the unborn child.

Xylitol against caries bacteria

Conventional sugar is converted into acidic end products by the bacteria in our oral flora. These acids in turn remove the minerals from our teeth. The consequences are brittle teeth, tooth decay, and bad breath.

Compared to sugar, xylitol cannot be utilized by these caries bacteria and therefore does not provide them with a breeding ground. Xylitol has antibacterial properties and causes fewer caries bacteria to settle in plaque.

Xylitol for healthy teeth

In order to enjoy the convincing tooth-protecting properties of xylitol, there is hardly a better application than rinsing the mouth with xylitol several times a day. To do this, half a teaspoon of xylitol is placed in the mouth.

The xylitol dissolves in the saliva. Now swish the xylitol solution in your mouth for at least two minutes and then spit it out. However, do not rinse your mouth with water afterward, and do not drink anything for the first half hour after the xylitol mouthwash. The xylitol should be able to work calmly in the mouth.

The mouth rinse should ideally be carried out after every meal (also after every snack between meals) and especially after snacks containing sugar. In the evening, the mouthwash can also be used shortly before going to bed – AFTER brushing your teeth.

Xylitol for the bones?

Various studies in recent years have shown through experiments with xylitol on rats that the sugar substitute can not only have a positive effect on the teeth but also on the bone density and the mineral content of the bones.

In concrete terms, this means that xylitol was able to increase bone density and bone mineral content in the studies mentioned below.

Conclusion on xylitol:

Xylitol offers many advantages for us humans, both as a sugar substitute and in oral hygiene. However, if it is important to you that xylitol was not produced using genetic engineering processes, it is better to ask your chosen dealer again.

Although xylitol is a naturally occurring substance, it has to be produced for food or personal care products using complex industrial processes. So xylitol is no longer particularly natural. Xylitol is also deadly for dogs and must never get into the food.

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Written by Bella Adams

I'm a professionally-trained, executive chef with over ten years in Restaurant Culinary and hospitality management. Experienced in specialized diets, including Vegetarian, Vegan, Raw foods, whole food, plant-based, allergy-friendly, farm-to-table, and more. Outside of the kitchen, I write about lifestyle factors that impact well-being.

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