What is xylitol doing in chewing gum?

Giving the chewer a sweet experience without worrying about cavities. Hopefully it does this without precipitating a quick trip to the bathroom. Sugar, as we well know, is persona- non-grata as far as our teeth are concerned. Bacteria in our mouth find sugar to be a yummy snack and they happily ingest it. But like us, bacteria also poop. And when they consume sugar, they poop out acids that can corrode the tooth’s enamel and cause cavities to form. But chewing gum that isn’t sweet isn’t much fun. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame can be used to impart flavour, but xylitol is better. The bacteria responsible for cavities cannot metabolize xylitol and therefore cannot multiply at the same rate as when fed sugar. As a result, less enamel damaging acids are produced. Mind you, it does take a fair bit of xylitol, roughly 5-6 grams a day, to cut down on the population of streptococcus mutans, the prime bacterium responsible for cavities. That translates to chewing roughly 3- 5 pieces of xylitol-sweetened gum a day. In high doses, more than about 15 grams a day, xylitol can cause stomach problems, and at even higher doses, it can give you the runs. Obviously, the dose matters both in terms of benefit and risk.

Since streptococci bacteria can be transferred to a baby through a mother’s kiss, xylitol sweetened gum is especially appropriate for new moms. Studies show that transmission of bacteria during the first two years of life can be reduced by as much as 80%! Xylitol’s safety has been thoroughly tested, including in pregnant and nursing women and aside from a laxative effect at doses way above what people actually consume, no effect has been noted. Xylitol has approximately the same sweetness as sugar, but only contributes about 2.4 calories per gram as opposed to sugar’s 4 calories per gram. Furthermore, xylitol does not need insulin to be metabolized, so it can be safely consumed by diabetics.

A common question that comes up about xylitol is whether it is or isn’t an artificial sweetener. This usually arises because of concerns about “artificial sweeteners.” Essentially, the question is an inappropriate one because a compound’s safety profile is not determined by its origin. Whether xylitol is extracted from some berry, which it can be, or whether it is made by an industrial process from xylose, which it usually is, has no bearing on its properties. The reason it has been found to be safe is simply because it has been tested. Xylitol is xylitiol, no matter where it comes from.

So, is it an artificial sweetener or not? I guess it is really both. It does occur in nature, you’ll find it in corn husks, fruits, berries, oats and various trees. But it isn’t practical to isolate it from these sources. On the other hand, xylose, a common carbohydrate can easily be produced from xylan, a type of fiber found in the cell walls of many plants. The pulp and paper industry is a ready source for xylan, which in turn can be converted to xylitol through a hydrogenation process. And then it’s ready to be added to gums, candies, toothpaste, pharmaceuticals and mouthwashes. But keep these away from dogs. They metabolize xylitol differently and at high doses can exhibit seriously low blood sugar and even liver damage.

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