There's nothing like a little foreign travel to open your eyes, and while we were in Japan my eyes discovered xylitol, which appeared to be a popular sweetener. Normally I wouldn't have given it two seconds worth of attention, as I loathe artificial sweeteners. I make an exception for chewing gum, but otherwise strive to avoid all versions of Saccharine, NutraSweet, Splenda, etc. and get really annoyed when they're included in a product without their presence being announced in big, obvious letters.
But xylitol was something popular in Japan and not here, so I did a little investigating. What I've found makes me astonished that it's not widely available, and very popular, in this country. I'm still looking for the down side, so maybe someone who reads this can fill me in. Here's what I've learned so far:
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol (rather than a sugar), present naturally in the human body, and found in a surprising variety of plant materials, including raspberries, mushrooms, and cauliflower. The most commercially useful sources are corn cobs and birch wood. (Xylitol is also called "birch sugar.")
It looks and tastes much like sugar, and can be used one-for-one in most applications. (Yeast breads are a notable exception; see below.)
It is already approved and considered safe in any quantity for diabetic foods, and is a commonly-used sweetener in many other countries, from Finland to China.
The most well documented benefit of xylitol is its ability to prevent—and possibly even repair—tooth decay. As I understand it, there are several different mechanisms by which it does this. It increases salivation (as does sugar, but that's not enough to overcome the harm sugar does); it starves the bacteria primarily responsible for tooth decay because they cannot metabolize xylitol; it helps prevent plaque from sticking to teeth; and it promotes remineralization of tooth enamel.
Other studies indicate that xylitol inhibits the growth of bacteria that often cause ear infections in children.
In addition to its anti-bacterial properties, xylitol inhibits the growth of yeast, which is good news for sufferers of candidiasis, and bad news for bread bakers.
All this antibacterial and anti-yeast action made me concerned about the effect of xylitol on the "good guys," the helpful inhabitants of our intestinal ecosystem. I have found little that addresses this question, but what I did find inticates that xylitol actually has a prebiotic effect and promotes rather than inhibits the growth of beneficial intestinal flora!
Animal studies indicate xylitol may fight osteoporosis by increasing bone density.
Xylitol has a low gylcemic index, and does not cause a rapid rise in blood sugar and resultant insulin response.
Xylitol is not a calorie free sweetener, but has about 40% fewer calories than sugar.
The only side effect I've been able to find is a temporary laxative effect in people who consume large amounts without giving their body time to adjust by increasing production of the enzymes used in the digestion of xylitol.
Now for a bit of personal experience. One advantage of being past the childbearing years is that one feels freer to experiment a bit. Xylitol is not easy to find in this country. A few brands of chewing gum contain some xylitol -- though for the positive dental effects it really needs to be the primary sweetener in gum. The "sugar" section of our grocery stores offer an amazing variety of real and artificial sweeteners, but no xylitol. But on the way home I stopped in to our local health food store and found a one-pound bag, which I promptly bought. The cost was $7, so it's not going to replace sugar in great quantities any time soon. (I subsequently found a five-pound bag for $22.)
So far, I think xylitol is great! I haven't used it in baking yet, but I've found it works well in yogurt and when I want to add a little more sweetness to fruit puree. Mostly I've just used it in small amounts (1/2 - 1 teaspoon) to swish around in my mouth after eating (and after rinsing my mouth with water). I must say it's weird because it tastes as if I'm coating my teeth with sugar -- and that can't be good, right? I don't know if I'll ever be able to attest to any anticariotic effects, since my teeth are at the stage where my greatest problem is the demise of ancient fillings. But I have noticed one thing. For many years my gums have been more red than pink, which alarms dental hygienists but which dentists, having been unable to determine a cause, and having ruled out all the bad possibilties they know, have chosen not to fret over. Suddenly, after two weeks of xylitol use, my gums are pink!
So -- I throw the subject open for discussion. What do you know about xylitol? Are there bad side effects I haven't been able to discern? Why is it so uncommon in the United States?
If you want to investigate for yourself, xylitol.org isn't a bad place to start.