Xylitol in a jar with tag

Sugar substitutes – xylitol explained

Low-GI, low-calorie and apparently good for dental health. Is xylitol all it's cracked up to be? Nutritionist Jo Lewin investigates...

Xylitol is a naturally present substance found in the fibres of many fruits and vegetables and can 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 corn cobs. Once extracted and processed, you’re left with a white, crystalline powder that looks like sugar. It has the same sweetness as sugar and has become a popular sweetner in food and health products.

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How can it be used?

Hand holding cup of tea

Xylitol is frequently found in chewing gum and mints and can be used in place of sugar in many bakes and is easily added to tea and coffee. Check the list of ingredients on packets to know if a product contains xylitol.

Nutritional information

Xylitol has a low GI value of 12, meaning it has little effect on blood sugar levels and insulin. It is therefore seen as a useful 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.

Health claims

Healthy smile with teeth

Xylitol, with its low GI value of 12, is broken down slowly, indicating that it does not cause a spike in blood sugar or insulin levels and may be helpful in reducing sugar cravings.

Xylitol is seen to have promising dental benefits. We know that diet plays a major role in dental health and that too much sugar causes tooth decay and periodontal disease. Eating sugar causes tooth decay by creating a highly acidic condition in the mouth. Acidity strips teeth of enamel, causing them to weaken and making them more vulnerable to attack by bacteria. Ordinarily, saliva bathes the mouth with an alkaline solution that neutralises all acidity, helping the process of digestion. When saliva turns acidic because of too much sugar, bacteria in the mouth have a feeding frenzy, eating away at enamel. Xylitol can help to prevent this by raising the pH to a more alkaline state, inhibiting the growth of bacteria that cause cavities.

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 and its ‘natural’ label is misleading. During the extraction process, chemicals are added to produce xylitol and there have been reports that it has a mild laxative effect, which may, for some people, cause digestive discomfort.

Is it better for you than sugar?

Xylitol and 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 aim for a balanced diet.  

This article was last reviewed on 5 July 2019 by Kerry Torrens.

A qualified nutritionist (MBANT), Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health. Follow her on Twitter @nutri_jo.

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

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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…