What is Xylitol and is it healthy?

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would have noticed that the latest movement in the health sphere is a drastic shift away from sugar. Sugar, it is said, it the equivalent of poison, worse for us than fat, and is the main contributor to obesity and other diseases. Regular readers of this blog will know that I highly agree with this research.

In light of this latest movement, there are several natural sweeteners that are now available as alternatives to sugar. I have blogged about the dangers of artificial sweeteners before and have outlined the pros and cons of products like stevia, and the negatives regarding agave.

A relatively new player has entered the field – xylitol. But what is it and is it safe to consume? In a nutshell, xylitol is a natural sweetener that is extracted from fibrous plant material such as corncobs and hardwood. It is a naturally occurring carbohydrate that looks and tastes like sugar.

Due to its chemical makeup, xylitol is only partly utilised by the body and is slowly absorbed. The American Dietetic Association claims that xylitol offers reduced glycaemic response as compared with sucrose (a chemical alternative to sugar), increased absorption of B vitamins and calcium and even a reduction in dental cavities.

The potential problems with xylitol however come from the extraction process that is required to produce this sweet stuff. Commercially produced xylitol is made using the industrialised process of sugar hydrogenation. To aid in this process, a powdered nickel-aluminium alloy is used. Yes, that’s right, a heavy metal residue.

The second issue, as with any product made from corn, is that commercially produced xylitol is often extracted from GMO corn. Anything genetically modified is highly harmful to our bodies.

The final issue that surrounds all sweeteners, natural and chemical, is that xylitol is an alcohol sugar (this can also be said for maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, erythritol – check the labels next time you are looking at sugar-free products). The problem with alcohol sugars is that they are not digested like other sweeteners and instead, land intact into the intestines. Because of this, the unmetabolised portions of food sit in the gut and ferment, instead of digesting, enabling an environment in which bacteria can grow. Hello stomach bloating.

So – should we eat xylitol or avoid it? David Gillespie, author of best selling book Sweet Poison marks xylitol as a sugar alternative that is “our call”, meaning each individual should make up his or her mind as to whether it works in our body and doesn’t cause any adverse reactions. (Of interest, he also includes stevia on this list). His full list can be viewed below. The take away here is that xylitol, while not as bad as sugar and other sweeteners such as agave, can be enjoyed however make sure you are not consuming it in large amounts and check to see whether it is coming from GMO corn. As always though, if in doubt, leave it out.

David Gillespie's list of safe and non-safe sweeteners

David Gillespie's list of safe and non-safe sweeteners