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Xylitol is one of the newer sweeteners out on the market. We’ve seen it in toothpastes and chewing gum for a while now but it’s starting to become popular as an actual sweetener also.
Just what is xylitol? Is it natural? Is it really a good alternative sweetener? What about in toothpastes?
What is Xylitol?
Xylitol is considered a sugar alcohol. It is found in birch bark, corn, raspberries and a few other items. Xylitol is about as sweet as sugar (although I will say it doesn’t taste exactly like sugar) but it has less calories then sugar does. Sugar contains 15 calories per teaspoon whereas xylitol has 9.6. Xylitol also has a low glycemic index of 7.
How is xylitol made?
Sad to say but xylitol isn’t all that natural. Yes, it can be found in nature but in order to actually get the xylitol that we have in our chewing gum or sugar alternative, it needs to go through a process…with other ingredients. Here is a break down on how it’s made.
1. First the xylan needs to be broken down by a process called acid hydrolyzing. This process leaves us with xylose and acetic acid. Then the process of hydrogenation is carried out at higher pressures and temperatures ranging from 158 degrees Fahrenheit and higher. Hydrogenation needs a catalyst, so a substance called Raney nickel can be used, which is a powdered nickel-aluminium alloy.
2. The acetic acid needs to be removed as the material safety data sheet (MSDS) describes it as, “Very hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant), of eye contact (irritant), of ingestion, of inhalation. Hazardous in case of skin contact (corrosive, permeator), of eye contact (corrosive).”
3. Then the hydrolyzing acid and organic residues must be removed, this is done by heating the mixture and evaporating it.
4. The resulting syrup, hopefully now free of acetic acid, hydrolyzing acid, nick-aluminum and other residues.
5. The syrup is crystallized by stirring ethanol into it.
6. The crystalline xylitol is now separated in a centrifuge from the ethanol and from the sorbitol remaining in solution.
7. You now have xylitol that is ready for toothpastes and sugar alternatives.
The long and short of it is that you add yucky chemicals to xylan, then you ideally remove them all and you are left with xylitol. Not quite natural.
Should we be using xylitol as a sugar alternative?
I personally think not. There are quite a few health concerns with xylitol that make me uneasy with using it for consumption.
Like many sugar alcohols, xylitol can cause bloating, diarrhea and intestinal gas. Children are even more susceptible to side effects from xylitol as they are smaller and thus even a normal adult serving might be too much for them.
There have also been studies showing that xylitol killed rats. Granted the amounts that killed rats would be equivalent to about 100 teaspoons of xylitol but it is still something to think about. I personally do not like risking my health with something that has potential side effects.
Xylitol is also highly processed and should also be avoided for that reason alone. I would stick with honey, molasses, or stevia instead; at least those are natural.
Should we use xylitol in toothpastes?
Xylitol is used in chewing gum and toothpastes all the time now. This is for two reasons, one reason is because it sweetens and another is because xylitol may help reduce tooth decay.
Xylitol works by stopping the bacterial growth in your mouth and keeps the acid from forming in your mouth. Xylitol also increases saliva, which helps keep the mouth healthy and helps prevent and/or restore tooth decay.
Now of course, I’m a promoter of the fact that good teeth are the result of proper diet. I believe your teeth rely mostly on the foods you eat to keep them strong and free of cavities. However, I do not think that using xylitol in toothpaste is a bad thing.
If it can help prevent cavities even more then I see no harm in using it. I use xylitol in my own homemade toothpaste for a few reason, 1) it sweetens (toothpaste just tastes better when sweet, what can I say) 2) the potential cavities fighting properties and 3) xylitol’s granular form acts as a gentle abrasive (at least in my experience although I have yet to look into research on that subject).
Where to buy xylitol
Concerns about xylitol to keep in mind
Xylitol is toxic to dogs much the same way as chocolate is.
Xylitol is often made from corn so you will want to make sure your source is GMO free. Birch derived xylitol is generally preferred.
Whether you chose to use xylitol is up to you. As I mentioned, I will not recommend it for dietary use due to the concerns with xylitol.
However for use in toothpastes, I currently have no issues with it. Do I think xylitol is absolutely necessary in toothpastes? No. Beneficial? Probably but not necessary. The choice is up to you but at least now you know a bit more about this sweetener.