Sugar substitutes – xylitol explained
Low-GI, low-calorie and apparently good for dental health. Is xylitol all it's cracked up to be? Registered nutritionist Jo Lewin investigates
Whether you're looking for sweet substitutes, sugar-free baking guides or simply want to find out your recommended daily amounts, find all the answers in our sugar hub: All you need to know about sugar.
What is xylitol?
Xylitol is a natural substance found in the fibres of a number of fruit and vegetables and can also be made in small amounts by the body. While it can be sourced from carbohydrate molecules (called polysaccharides) in the cell walls of birch and beech trees, rice, oat, wheat and cotton husks, the main source of xylitol for commercial use is from corn cobs. Once extracted and processed, you are left with a white, crystalline powder that looks a little like sugar. It has the same sweetness as sugar and has become a popular sweetener in food and health products.
How can it be used?
Xylitol is frequently found in chewing gum and mouth-freshening mints and can be used in place of sugar in many bakes, just be aware cakes sweetened with xylitol don't tend to colour much, so perhaps stick to using it in coffee or chocolate cakes. Xylitol’s crystal appearance makes it an easy swap for sugar when sweetening hot drinks, like tea and coffee.
Nutritional profile of xylitol
Xylitol has a low glycaemic index (GI) value of 12, meaning it has little effect on blood sugar levels and insulin. It is therefore seen as a useful sugar alternative for diabetics. It contains only 2.4 calories per gram and is slowly absorbed. It is partly digested by the liver and then travels to the intestinal tract, where it is broken down further.
Is xylitol good for me?
With its low GI, xylitol is broken down slowly, which means it doesn’t cause a spike in blood sugar or insulin levels and may be helpful in reducing sugar cravings.
One of the main health claims for xylitol is its benefits for dental health. We know that diet plays a major role in dental health and that too much sugar causes tooth decay and periodontal disease. Xylitol can help to prevent this by raising the pH of the oral cavity so it inhibits the growth of the bacteria that cause cavities.
Is xylitol better than sugar?
Xylitol may be better for dental health compared to consuming large amounts of sugar, however, it is still a sweetener and as with other sugar alternatives, too much is not recommended. The best way to control dental cavities and sugar cravings is to avoid excess sugar and to enjoy a varied, balanced diet.
Is xylitol safe for everyone?
Although the general consensus is that xylitol is good for dental health, some opponents claim that when eaten in excess it may have unfavourable effects on the digestive tract, this is because it has a mild laxative effect. For this reason, if you experience gut discomfort or have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may be best to skip this sweetener.
It's also worth noting that while xylitol is a common sugar-free ingredient for humans, it is highly toxic for dogs.
Want to try xylitol? Check out these recipes
Do you use xylitol as a sugar substitute? Let us know below if you prefer it to table sugar or whether you've seen any unwanted side effects...
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