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Xylitol: The Sweeter Side of Life, Naturally

Don't let the name fool you, naturally derived xylitol really does taste like sugar—and what's more, it's considered sugar-free and is actually good for your family!

First it’s the name, everyone says the same thing. “I don’t know, it just sounds funny, like some scary chemical or something.” Then there’s the chatter. "Isn’t that made out of wood bark…corn...alcohol? I’ve heard it’s good for your teeth…nostrils…ears."

Yep, all true.

True, too, that the name has probably turned off many a shopper. But xylitol, now found on grocery store shelves in the personal grooming section as well as in a pure granulated form alongside the sweeteners, really does deserve a second and third look.

I xylitol about a year ago when I was on a sugar-free kick for a nasty virus I was battling. Although I feel much better, the xylitol is still out on my kitchen counter right next to the coffee pot, a few packets to-go in my purse, and forever now in my family’s toothpaste and gum.The stuff is just so amazing. It tastes exactly like sugar and is actually good for you (think stevia without, well, the taste of stevia)!

When a friend forgot sugar on a recent camping trip and refused my packets due to the name alone, preferring unsweetened coffee instead, I realized it may be time for another trip to the soap-box for me and my favorite sweetener.

The fact is that xylitol does have a funny name and I really wish whoever’s in charge of these things would consider a new one. It’s also true that xylitol, first found by German scientists naturally occurring in birch-tree bark, can be synthesized from many different kinds of plants including corn and wood.

On food labels, xylitol is classified broadly as a carbohydrate and more narrowly as a polyol or sugar alcohol; however, xylitol is considered a “sugar-free” sweetener. Chemically speaking, xylitol differs from other sweeteners such as sorbitol, fructose and glucose because its molecule has five, instead of six, carbon atoms.While it contains about 40 percent fewer calories than sugar, xylitol's sweetening power is the same as that of sucrose (table sugar) and when replacing sugar with it in recipes, the ratio is 1:1.

Amazingly, xylitol may actually help to reduce the risk of tooth decay, rather than encourage it like sugar. The California Dental Association calls it the “Decay-Preventative Sweetener” and their online information explains that: “Xylitol inhibits the growth of the bacteria that cause cavities. It does this because these bacteria (Streptococcus mutans) cannot utilize xylitol to grow. Over time with xylitol use, the quality of the bacteria in the mouth changes and fewer and fewer decay-causing bacteria survive on tooth surfaces.”

Also, according to Xylitol.org, the body doesn't require insulin to metabolize xylitol. For this reason polyols like xylitol produce a lower glycemic response than sucrose or glucose. This has made xylitol a widely used sweetener for the diabetic diet in some countries. The organization also recommends using it in spray form to reduce germs that cause illness by creating germs in the nasal passages. Too, they say that taking it orally to decrease the risk of ear infection and cite that, “In well controlled studies, doctors in Finland found that 8 grams of xylitol, taken orally every day, prevented about 40 percent of ear infections.”

So let's see, that's good taste, good for your teeth, your waist-line, your ears, immune system and blood-sugar levels. Can you see why I consider this stuff  a super-food?

Some people do find that they get digestive symptoms like diarrhea if they consume too much xylitol, but it's considered totally safe up to 15 grams per day. So if you’re able to get past the name, and my soap-box moment has moved you, see this list of xylitol products, and recipes and see for yourself how sweet life can be, naturall, with xylitol.

Have you used xylitol in for your family's health needs? How do you like it? Tell us in comments.

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