If you’re concerned about your dental health, and have tried to eliminate sugar from your diet, you’ve probably run across “sugar alcohols” in the list of ingredients in most sugar-free foods. When sugar alcohols are listed, they are talking about Xylitol, which looks and tastes like sugar, but has fewer calories and doesn’t raise blood sugar levels.
Several studies suggest that Xylitol can improve dental health and have various other important benefits. Xylitol looks and tastes like sugar, but has fewer calories and doesn’t raise blood sugar levels.
What is Xylitol and How is it Made?
Sugar alcohols are like hybrids of a sugar molecule and alcohol molecule. Their structure gives them the ability to stimulate the sweet taste receptors on the tongue. Xylitol is found in small amounts in many fruits and vegetables and is therefore considered natural.
It is a common ingredient in sugar-free chewing gums, candies, mints, diabetes friendly foods and oral care products. Xylitol has a similar sweetness as regular sugar, but contains 40% fewer calories:
Xylitol is a refined sweetener, so it doesn’t contain any vitamins, minerals or protein. It is “empty” calories. It can be processed from trees like birch, but it can also be made with an industrial process that transforms a plant fiber called Xylan into Xylitol.
Even though sugar alcohols are technically carbohydrates, most of them do not raise blood sugar levels and therefore don’t count as “net” carbs, making them popular sweeteners in low-carb products.
Xylitol Has a Very Low Glycemic Index and Doesn’t Spike Blood Sugar or Insulin
One of the negative effects of sugar (and high fructose corn syrup), is that it can spike blood sugar and insulin levels. Due to the high amount of fructose, it can also lead to insulin resistance and all sorts of metabolic problems when consumed in excess. Well… xylitol contains zero fructose and has negligible effects on blood sugar and insulin. Therefore, none of the harmful effects of sugar apply to xylitol.
What About Your Teeth?
Numerous studies show that Xylitol, either by replacing sugar or adding it on top of the diet, can reduce cavities and tooth decay by as much as 30-85%. Xylitol starves the bad bacteria in your mouth and has major benefits for dental health. Many dentists, including Dr Ybee, recommend using Xylitol-sweetened chewing gum. This is because numerous studies show that Xylitol has powerful benefits for dental health and prevention of tooth decay.
One of the leading risk factors for tooth decay is a type of oral bacteria called Streptococcus mutans. This is the bacteria mostly responsible for plaque. Although having some plaque on the teeth is normal, when it gets out of hand the immune system starts attacking the bacteria in it. This can lead to inflammatory gum diseases like gingivitis.
These oral bacteria feed on glucose from food, but they cannot use Xylitol. Replacing sugar with Xylitol therefore reduces the available fuel for the harmful bacteria.
Even better, the bad bacteria cannot use Xylitol for fuel, but they still ingest it. When the bacteria are full of Xylitol, they are unable to take up glucose, so essentially their energy producing pathway is “clogged” and they end up dying. In other words, when you chew gum with Xylitol (or use it as a sweetener), the sugar metabolism in the bacteria is blocked, and they literally starve to death. Bad for them. Good for us.
In one study, using Xylitol-sweetened chewing gum reduced levels of the bad bacteria by 27-75%, while it had no effect on the friendly bacteria.
Xylitol Also Has Other Dental Benefits:
- Xylitol increases absorption of calcium in the digestive system, which is good for your teeth and may also protect against osteoporosis.
- It increases production of saliva. Saliva contains calcium and phosphate, which get picked up by the teeth and aid in remineralization.
- Xylitol reduces the acidity of saliva, which helps to fight acid-driven degradation of tooth enamel.
- Because inflammation is at the root of many chronic diseases, it makes sense that reducing plaque and gum inflammation could have benefits for the rest of your body as well.
One Big Caution! Xylitol is Highly Toxic to Dogs
In humans, Xylitol is absorbed slowly and has no measurable effect on insulin production. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about dogs. When dogs eat Xylitol, their bodies mistakenly think that they’ve ingested glucose and start producing large amounts of insulin.
Xylitol may also have detrimental effects on liver function in dogs, with high doses causing liver failure.
So if you own a dog, then keep Xylitol out of reach (or out of your house altogether). If you believe your dog accidentally ate Xylitol, take it to the vet immediately.
Using Xylitol Can Help at Checkup Time
So, Xylitol can help your dental health in many ways, including reducing plaque, gum inflammation, preserving tooth enamel, reducing cavities. It might even help you to shed a few pounds. But no matter how much you substitute it for real sugar, it’s still important for you to keep up with your regular dental checkups. Nothing can take the place of consistent oral exams to avoid significant future problems.