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Nutrient - Xylitol for a sweet tooth?

By Cathy Robinson BSc Dip Nut Med

Many of you will already be familiar with a wonderful natural sugar substitute, called Xylitol. In fact, many people wouldn’t know what to do without it, as it adds a totally natural sweetness to cakes, drinks and other goodies but with 40% less calories than sugar.

Xylitol looks like sugar, tastes like sugar but behaves in the body very differently to sugar. It is totally natural, unlike artificial chemical sweeteners. Xylitol is found naturally in fruit and vegetables, such as plums, strawberries and raspberries. 

Xylitol is what is called a polyol sugar alcohol – a complex molecule which breaks down slowly in the body. This means that, unlike sugar, it does not upset our blood sugar and energy levels, nor will it feed yeasts and harmful bacteria in our digestive system, avoiding those familiar feelings of bloating and tummy upset after eating sugary foods. 

However, xylitol has another positive benefit, which has been extensively studied by scientists – a beneficial effect on dental health. We have around 400 strains of bacteria naturally inhabiting our mouth and these bacteria, especially one strain called Streptococcus mutans found in saliva and dental plaque, are the cause of most dental decay and other problems. 

It’s well known that sugar is linked to dental decay, or caries. Sugar provides the main source of energy for those decay-causing bacteria. Sugar also encourages an acidic environment in the mouth, which weakens our dental enamel, leaving it vulnerable to attack by the bacteria.  

Xylitol, on the other hand, cannot be metabolised by the bacteria in the mouth, largely because it has a different molecular structure to sugar, containing five carbon molecules rather than six, and it tends to encourage an alkaline, rather than an acid environment in the mouth, which is inhospitable to Streptococcus mutans. 

Xylitol’s positive effects are backed up by scientific evidence. A review of studies in 2001 showed a reduction of dental caries, when using xylitol, of up to 60%. 

No discussion on dental health would be complete without mentioning gum disease. If your gums bleed on brushing it can be a sign of inflammation within the gums, often called periodontal disease. An impressive number of studies have found that the antioxidant co-enzyme Q10 can have beneficial effects on gum health, as it is needed to properly repair gum tissue. Xylitol can be safely combined with co-enzyme Q10. 

Experts believe that, in order to promote dental health, an adult may need between 6-12g of xylitol per day. We already consume around 2-4g per day of xylitol, providing we eat a good range of fruit and vegetables.  

Xylitol is easy to use, just use it as you would ordinary sugar. The powder can be added to hot drinks, as well as used in baking and other desserts, though is not suitable for bread making as it will not feed yeast so it will not rise.   

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