Swapping sugar for xylitol: is it worth it?

by Herna De Wit

July 12, 2019

By this time in the health-crazed era, you probably would have heard about xylitol. But what is this white sugar lookalike really? Is it worth putting in your coffee?


The build-up

Xylitol has become known as a lower-calorie substitute with a low glycemic index (low GI).


It is a sugar alcohol, in other words, it is a type of carbohydrate that does not really contain alcohol. Xylitol, like other sugar alcohols, combine traits of sugar and alcohol molecules that allow them to stimulate the same taste receptors on your tongue that sugar would stimulate. Even though it is called a sugar alcohol, it is safe for people with alcohol addictions.


It naturally occurs in small amounts in fibrous fruits and vegetables, trees, and corncobs, and is therefore considered natural. Xylitol is processed from trees like birch or from xylan, which is a plant fiber.


Possibly the biggest advantage of swapping your sugar for xylitol might be that xylitol does not raise blood sugar levels, and doesn’t count towards net carbs. This makes it the ideal sweetener in low-carb diets and products. It can also safely be used by diabetics due to it not raising blood sugar levels.


In the rest of the article, we will look at the common uses of xylitol and its potential health benefits.



Table sugar contains 4 calories per gram, whereas xylitol contains roughly 2.4 calories per gram. It doesn’t contain any vitamins, minerals or protein, so these 2.4 calories per gram are empty calories.


You do not skip out on any of the sweetness when using xylitol instead of sugar, because its sweetness levels are close to the same.


Various manufacturers use xylitol for products that include sugar-free candies like gums, mints, and gummies, jams and jellies, honey, nut butters like peanut butter, and yogurt. It has also been used in dental care products like toothpaste, mouthwash, and other fluoride products.


Potential health benefits

Better dental health


A leading cause of tooth decay is an oral bacteria called Streptococcus mutans, which causes build-up of plaque. Excess build-up of plaque encourages the immune system to start attacking the bacteria which leads to an inflammatory response and gum diseases like gingivitis.


Streptococcus mutans feed on sugar from food. But they cannot use xylitol as a food source.


These bacteria still take in the xylitol, but they cannot digest it. When they ingest xylitol, it inhibits them from taking up any sugar, so the bacteria’s energy-producing pathway gets clogged up, and they end up dying.


One study found that chewing xylitol-sweetened gum reduced the levels of bad bacteria in your mouth by between 27 – 75%, while the friendly bacteria remained alive and well. Other studies have shown that by introducing xylitol into your diet, cavities and tooth decay can be reduced by 30 – 85%.


Inflammation is the main cause behind many chronic diseases, and by reducing plaque and gum inflammation, it could also have benefits for the rest of your body.


Xylitol Reduces Ear and Yeast Infections


Considering the anatomy of your head and the sinuses, you will see that your mouth, nose and ears are all interconnected. Because of this interconnectivity, bacteria that live in your mouth can easily end up causing ear infections – which is a common problem in children.


It has been found that bacteria in the ears can also be starved by xylitol in the same way as bacteria in the mouth. In a study with children with recurring ear infections, daily usage of xylitol-sweetened chewing gum showed a reduced prevalence of 40%.


Xylitol has also been found to inhibit Candida albicans, where it reduces the yeast’s ability to stick to surfaces, and thereby preventing candida infections.


It also has anti-ageing benefits?

In your skin and connective tissues, you have millions of collagen fibres. Some studies in rats have linked xylitol to the increased production of collagen, that may in turn lead to counteracting the effects of aging on your skin.


Collagen is also in your connective tissues, which is the tissues between your hard skeletal bones. Some studies have even suggested that xylitol usage may have a protective effect against osteoporosis due to it leading to increased bone volume and bone mineral content in rats.


Please keep in mind, that the above collagen studies still need to be confirmed in humans.



A review has found that adults can safely tolerate between 10 – 30 grams of xylitol per day, varying from person to person. After the body has adapted to xylitol, the dosage can be safely increased to up to 70 grams per day without having any side-effects.


Children can consume up to 45 grams of xylitol daily.


Previous research has suggested that consuming around 5 – 6 grams per day may help reduce plaque and harmful bacteria in the mouth. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry say that more research is needed to give conclusive results on this.


Xylitol is used as a replacement for sugar in a 1:1 ratio, due to its similar sweetness. So that means if you put two teaspoons sugars in that coffee of yours, you will need to put in two teaspoons of xylitol to achieve the same sweetness.



Side effects

Usually, people tolerate xylitol well, but some experience digestive side effects when consuming too much at once.


Xylitol may pull water into your intestine and may get fermented by gut bacteria. This can then lead to gas, bloating, and diarrhea. These effects can decrease with continually using xylitol by starting with a low dosage and building up from there.


Long term use of xylitol seems to be safe seeing that it is a natural product.


People struggling with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or people who are intolerant to FODMAPs, must be careful of using sugar alcohols like xylitol, and it might be best to consider to avoid them altogether.


It is very important to note that xylitol is highly toxic to dogs. In humans, xylitol is absorbed slowly and does not have an effect on insulin production (thus its safety for diabetic use), but it is not the same in dogs.


When dogs eat xylitol, their bodies mistake it for normal sugar and produce large amounts of insulin. This can then lead to low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), liver failure, and even death if not treated.


It only takes 0.1 grams per kilogram body weight for a dog to be affected, that is less than the amount contained in a single piece of chewing gum.


The bottom line

Xylitol is a great swap for sugar.

You will gain a few molecules that help prevent tooth decay, gum disease and ear infections, all while still enjoying your morning coffee.


Herna De Wit

By Herna De Wit

Ph.D. Biochemistry Candidate.

Read more at thetwirlingscientist.com

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