Xylitol: Safe or Dangerous?

If reading food labels is part of your shopping experience, you’ve probably seen the ingredient “xylitol” coming up and more and more the past couple years. Reported by most manufactures as being “all natural,” few suspect it’s anything but healthy.

Unfortunately, natural doesn’t always mean “non-toxic”.

Xylitol and sorbitol are commonly used as sugar replacements, but are they safe? Here’s what you need to know!

Xylitol is truly the darling of sugar substitutes today. The American Dietetic Association touts use of xylitol, a sugar alcohol sold alone and in a variety of processed foods, as offering health benefits such as reduced glycemic response compared with sucrose, increased absorption of B vitamins and calcium, and even a reduction in dental caries risk.

Consequently, people with blood sugar issues are flocking to processed foods containing xylitol as a way to satisfy that sweet tooth without the downside of exacerbating the risk factors for Metabolic Syndrome: 
  • heart disease
  • stroke, 
  • type 2 diabetes.
Even within the health food community, xylitol is almost universally considered a healthy substitute for sugar in particular because it doesn’t directly contribute toward the growth of intestinal yeasts aka Candida.

Xylitol is Naturally Found in Nature

Xylitol is, after all, a naturally occurring substance. Manufacturers of xylitol market it as derived from xylan, which is found in the fibers of many plants including berries, oats, beets, sugar cane and birch. Sounds pretty harmless.

The FDA has even granted xylitol GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status. You can’t get any safer than that, right?

How Xylitol is Manufactured

While it is true that xylitol is a naturally occurring substance, manufactured xylitol is another matter entirely.

Commercially available xylitol is produced by the industrialized process of sugar hydrogenation. In order to hydrogenate anything, a catalyst is needed, and in the case of xylitol, nickel is used which is a powdered nickel-aluminum alloy.

Can we say heavy metal residue? Xylitol doesn’t seem quite so warm and fuzzy anymore, does it?

First, the fact that xylitol is “hydrogenated” should raise some concerns because hydrogenated foods are known to cause: (6)
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Behavioral irritability and aggression
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Liver dysfunction
  • Major depressive disorder 
Secondly, nickel is a known toxin has been linked to: (7, 8)
  • Asthma attacks
  • Cancer
  • Dermatitis (skin allergies)
  • Hand eczema (skin rash)
  • Indigestion
  • Kidney problems
  • Lung disorders
At this point, there is no research proving that chewing xylitol sweetened gum or eating xylitol sweetened cookies will cause these things, but I’d be careful before diving in and making xylitol part of your daily natural health regimen.

Given the violent industrialized process that is required to produce a hydrogenated sugar like xylitol, it would seem wise to avoid it based on the very poor track record of hydrogenated foods in general!

Most Xylitol Comes from GMO Corn

While it is true that xylitol can be derived from the xylan of birch trees, xylan is also found in corn cobs. It is much cheaper to use corn instead of birch bark to derive xylitol and so what do you think manufacturers prefer? Corn of course.

Therefore, unless the label of a xylitol containing product specifically notes that it is from birch, beets or some other non GMO source, run of the mill corn derived xylitol is very likely from genetically modified corn.

This is the same problem as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) widely used in sodas and sports drinks.

You get a dose of GMOs with every sip!

Xylitol Contributes to Gut Imbalance

Sugar alcohols like xylitol are not broken down in the stomach like other sweeteners. Rather, they arrive intact into the intestines.

At that point, a process called “passive diffusion” takes place whereby the xylitol draws water into the bowels. This results in only partial breakdown of the xylitol. The unmetabolized portion ferments; the perfect environment for undesirable bacteria to grow.

And, while it is true that xylitol itself does not feed candida directly like sugar does, the fermentation of undigested xylitol in the gut most definitely can exacerbate yeast problems, so don’t be fooled by that argument!

This is exactly why consuming xylitol can make some folks so gassy and even trigger cramping and diarrhea. Gut pathogens having a heyday in your intestines give off a lot of smelly toxins!

Other Little Known Problems with Xylitol

Xylitol can contribute to acid reflux problems so those who have issues in this area should avoid it for that reason alone. Chronic acid reflux is a serious problem that can lead to cancer of the esophagus and larynx.

In addition, those who suffer from seizures of any kind should stay away from xylitol as it has been known to increase the frequency of epileptic attacks.

Enough Xylitol in Two Pieces of Gum to Kill a Rat

According to lab tests, a 100 gram rat can be killed by approximately 1.65 grams of xylitol about half the time.

Two little pieces of xylitol gum contain about .7 – 1 gram of xylitol – enough to probably kill your child’s pet rat.

Do you want your child chewing this gum sweetened with sugar alcohol on a frequent basis even if preliminary research indicates that it may help prevent cavities?

Rami Nagel, author of Cure Tooth Decay, doesn’t even recommend xylitol gum for this purpose. His research for any long term safety data on xylitol turned up the following:
  • “Epidemiology: No information found
  • Teratogenicity: No information found
  • Reproductive Effects: No information found
  • Mutagenicity: No information found
  • Neurotoxicity: No information found”

When Might Xylitol be Helpful?

Given all the problems that consumption of xylitol can trigger, it seems best to bypass use of this sugar substitute on a regular basis.

Can xylitol ever be helpful, however?

Potentially so. The only time I personally would ever consider using xylitol is to help resolve a childhood ear or sinus infection in order to prevent the use of antibiotics.

There is evidence that xylitol can indeed help encourage a healthy balance of beneficial bacteria found in the ear canal and sinus cavities and that a therapeutic dose of xylitol can help resolve an infection in these areas quickly with no medication required.

If you are going to use this sugar alcohol sparingly and therapeutically (not as a food), make sure it does not come from a GMO source like corn!

A Special Warning to Pet Owners

On a very important side note, for all of my friends out there with pets, xylitol side effects are very toxic to pets. In fact, “xylitol is extremely toxic to dogs.” (9) According to VCA Animal Hospitals,

In the past 5 years, Pet Poison Helpline, an animal poison control based out of Minneapolis, MN, has had over 1500 calls for xylitol poisoning, due to the growing awareness of this common kitchen toxin. In both humans and pets, the level of blood sugar is controlled by the release of insulin from the pancreas.

Be sure to read your pet’s food labels, and never feed pets your table scraps if they have xylitol in them.

Xylitol Side Effects

The reason sugar alcohols like xylitol are not recommended for human consumption is because of the two-fold metabolic xylitol side effects that burden the body and lead to weight gain:
  1. Because the body cannot digest them properly the non-metabolized portion ferments and creates a favorable environment for harmful bacteria to colonize. Exacerbating yeast problems, many people will also experience constipation, gas/bloating and diarrhea. (5)
  2. As with all toxins, because the body cannot digest them sufficiently precious metabolic resources are wasted in an attempt to clear it out of your digestive system 
Next to minor GI complaints, weight gain is the most heavily researched side effect to consuming xylitol and other artificial sweeteners.
In addition to the metabolic burden they place on the body, there is a psychosocial aspect that cannot be ignored. As stated by Harvard Medical School. "Research raises concern that they may do just the opposite and actually promote weight gain. How so? [Alternative] sweeteners are extremely sweet — hundreds to thousands of times sweeter than table sugar."

In addition, some research has identified sweetness receptors in fat tissue. We don’t know for sure, but that raises the possibility that [alternative] sweeteners could cause weight gain by directly stimulating the development of new fat cells.

A good of thumb is that if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.