Xylitol - what's the buzz?

Xylitol is a "tooth-friendly", nonfermentable sugar alcohol. It is naturally found in low concentrations in the fibres of many fruits and vegetables and can be extracted from various berries, oats, and mushrooms. Industrial production starts from xylan extracted from hardwoods or corncobs, which is hydrolyzed into xylose and catalytically hydrogenated into xylitol.

Finland is the undisputed home of xylitol. Xylitol mints, chewing gum and sweets can be found everywhere and you’d be hard pushed to find someone who didn’t know they were good for teeth.. Birch trees are one of the best sources as they’re naturally very rich in xylose, and Finland has lots of birch trees.

During World War II  Finland suffered a major sugar shortage. They turned to xylitol as an alternative and consumption became widespread. While scientists weren’t yet aware of the dental benefits, they had learned that xylitol was insulin-independent (it metabolizes in the body without using insulin) and is therefore a great sugar-alternative for diabetics.

In the early 1970s, Finnish researchers that made a hugely important breakthrough. They discovered that xylitol could also affect the bacteria in the mouth that caused decay. Chewing gum was identified as the perfect way to get people to eat xylitol and in 1975, the world’s first xylitol chewing gum was launched in Finland. 

The fact that xylitol is such a useful tool for preventative dentistry (as it kills the bacteria which cause plaque and decay), meant that Finland further embraced xylitol with xylitol sweets, mints and chewing gum becoming very widely used.
Some research suggests that xylitol can assist in remineralising damaged enamel, and experiments with rats suggest that it may have a place in treating osteoporosis. Some experiments indicate that a fluoride toothpaste with xylitol works better to protect teeth that flouride alone.

The perception of sweetness obtained from consuming xylitol causes the secretion of saliva which acts as a buffer against the acidic environment created by the microorganisms in dental plaque. Increase in salivation can raise the falling pH to a neutral range within few minutes of xylitol consumption.

In the human gut xylitol is not absorbed as well as glucose or fructose; the unabsorbed xylitol acts as a dietary soluble fiber in helping to maintain certain aspects of gut function. Xylitol also is useful in recovery after heavy exercise because the human body converts absorbed xylitol to glucose 6-phosphate and glycogen. The conversion is however slow, so that the xylitol amounts to a low-GI source of energy.

The digestive properties of xylitol point to some disadvantages. Some people have a problem digesting products in this class and may find that it can cause indigestion or diarrhoea.

Although xylitol is safe for humans with the exception of the gut issue it is not safe for dogs or birds and may be fatal.

The food additive number for xylitol is 967 or E967 and it may appear on food labels as this.  Look for it as the main sweetener in "sugar free" products rather than sorbitol or similar products.  It should be earlier in the ingredient list.

I discussed this with a dental hygienist and she was very knowledgable about it, so ask the hygienist in your dental practise if (s)he can recommend something.  They probably stock some products and will be able to advise on their use.

Otherwise you might get xylitol products at a health food store or pharmacy. If you have trouble finding it in store look online. 

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