In this article, I’m going to ‘back-to-basics’ to tell you all about the low-carb, natural, sugar substitute Xylitol. That’s what it is, its pros and cons, how your body processes it, the health impacts, how to cook with it, and more. This is a companion piece to my article looking in-depth at Erythritol.
Given what we all know now, about sugar being the devil, I’m lucky not to have much of a sweet-tooth. But when I do want something sweet, I sometimes use Xylitol in my recipes as a low-carb, natural, substitute for sugar.
- – Nutritional Content
- – Blood Sugar & Diabetes Management & Cholesterol
- – Digestion, Laxative Effect & IBS
- – Pregnancy, Breastfeeding & Children
- – Oral Health Benefits
What is Xylitol?
Xylitol is a natural sweetener which is 100% as sweet as sugar. But it has significantly fewer carbs and calories than sugar (see below). Therefore many low-carbers use it as a sugar substitute.
Xylitol is granulated, looks exactly like white sugar, and can be used spoon-for-spoon and weight-for-weight in drinks and recipes exactly like sugar. So there’s no need for any tricky and inexact recipe conversions.
As well as adding sweetness to dishes, Xylitol – and other sugar alcohols like erythritol – add bulk and texture, as sugar does. They also help retain moisture in foods. They neither cause nor prevent browning.
A Tiny Bit of Chemistry & Human Biology!
Despite its scientific-sounding name, which may make you think Xylitol is an artificial sweetener, it actually isn’t. In fact, it’s a natural substance, and contains no artificial chemicals. In its optimum form, it’s usually extracted from trees like birch (the prefix ‘xyl-‘ is derived from the Greek word for wood).
For instance, the brand Total Sweet – which is the one most commonly available in stores in the UK – is made from European birch and beech wood. Trees are grown sustainably to make paper, and Xylitol is actually a bi-product of that process.
If you can bear 30 seconds of chemistry(!), then it helps to know that Xylitol is a type of polyol, classed as a sugar alcohol. (Its family members include the sweetners erythritol, sorbitol and maltitol). But if you haven’t studied chemistry, this designation can be a bit confusing, as it’s neither sugar, nor alcohol.
In fact polyols – and therefore sugar alcohols, including Xylitol – are actually a form of carbohydrate. This type of carbohydrate has a chemical structure partially resembling sugar and partially resembling alcohol. But crucially, polyols are a form of carbohydrate that the human body can’t digest efficiently. This means they are incompletely metabolised and absorbed by the body.
To use perhaps a more familiar analogy, think of fibre, which is also a type of carbohydrate that we can’t digest efficiently. That means that it passes through the body largely unabsorbed. So, similar to fibre then, we absorb fewer calories and carbs from polyols. This is why many people following a keto way of eating subtract polyol and fibre carbs when calculating the figure for ‘net’ carbs they have consumed in a day.
Meanwhile, we essentially fully digest and absorb the calories and carbs in other types of carbohydrate like normal table sugar. That adds to our energy intake, and affects the blood sugar response in our bodies.
What Does Xylitol Taste Like?
For me, Xylitol has a really pleasant taste. It’s very similar indeed to sugar, although a little more mildly sweet. If you eat it ‘neat’, it feels a little cooling in the mouth.
There is no nasty bitterness or synthetic taste, as there is with artificial sweeteners.
What’s Xylitol’s Nutrition & Health Profile?
|Per 100g serving||Xylitol||Sugar (sucrose)|
|– of which sugars||0||100|
|– of which polyols||100||0|
Source: verified information from the MyFitnessPal Database and Total Sweet nutrition information
While the table above indicates that Xylitol and sugar are both 100% carbs, the crucial difference is the type of carbs.
For instance, it’s because different carbs behave differently in the body that many nutritional labels have an ‘of which sugars’ sub-category. And in the UK, fibre – although being a type of carb – is not included in the total carb count on ingredients labels in the way that it is, say, in the US. Fibre is always listed separately, as it does not count as net carbs for impact on blood sugar.
So in fact these numbers above show that 100% of the carbs in Xylitol are polyols. And as we’ve already seen, polyols behave differently to the carbs in sugar which are – well – 100% sugar of course! Xylitol actually has fewer than half the ‘net’ or ‘available’ carbs of sugar (those absorbed and used by the body). And at 240Kcal per 100g, you’re saving 40% over sugar in terms of calories.
Blood Sugar & Diabetes Management & Cholesterol
As we’ve seen, after eating Xylitol, it passes through the body to be excreted, with inefficient absorption of calories and carbs along the way. That means it has less impact on blood sugar or insulin.
Xylitol actually has a GI (glycemic index) value around 7, compared with sugar’s GI of 65. That means Xylitol is classed as low GI, while sugar is high GI.
This all means that eating Xylitol only raises blood sugar very slowly – while conversely, sugar can cause a fast blood sugar spike. A blood sugar spike usually triggers an insulin rush in the body. And because of the way insulin works to promote fat storage, that that means the greater number of calories in sugar are also more likely to be laid down as fat – or to contribute to developing insulin resistance and/or type 2 diabetes – than the lower number of calories in Xylitol.
According to a scientific review in 2015, Xylitol can be seen as a functional sweetener (that is, a food which delivers additional or enhanced benefits over and above its basic nutritional value). That’s because it has prebiotic effects, which can not only include reduction of blood glucose, but also reduction of triglycerides and cholesterol levels.
All of this means that Xylitol is often included as an ingredient in foods marketed as helping to manage type 2 diabetes.
This is interesting as, for instance, l see that the charity Diabetes UK say that they and the European Commission Regulations don’t recommend Xylitol and other polyols to diabetics. That’s because they feel these tend to be included in products which are higher overall in calories and fat, and because they can act as a laxative (see below). They seem to prefer to recommend artificial sweeteners But personally I wouldn’t touch the chemicals in artificial sweeteners, and they usually taste vile.
Digestion, Laxative Effect & IBS
Xylitol may well not be suitable for people who have irritable bowl syndrome (IBS).
In particular, it may not suit those who have chosen to follow a low-FODMAP diet. Low-FODMAP eating involves restriction or exclusion from the diet of groups of short-chain carbohydrates, which are all either slowly absorbed, or not digested, in the small intestine. Collectively, they are known as Fermentable, Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides and Monosaccharides and Polyols (FODMAPs).
Following a low FODMAP diet can significantly reduce abdominal symptoms associated with IBS, and is often now considered a front-line therapy. So IBS sufferers, you may wish to look at your existing diet and remove Xylitol e.g. by ensuring you aren’t chewing Xylitol gum. And instead of using Xylitol in your cooking, you may wish to try using Erythritol instead, as overall it tends to be the best tolerated of all the polyols (but everybody’s different!).
For similar reasons, Xylitol can have a laxative effect for anyone if you eat a lot of it. I’ve never had any problems personally. But if you do, the manufacturers suggest not having more than 10g per 10kg of body weight per day, and to work up to that amount gradually. So if you weighed 10st/140lbs/63kg, say – that’s 60g of sugar substitute, which seems to me not an overly-restrictive daily amount.
Pregnancy, Breastfeeding & Children
Because of lack of research in this area, companies selling Xylitol do not recommend to use Xylitol while pregnant or breastfeeding, or to give it to very young children
Oral Health Benefits
Xylitol is passively better for your oral health than sugar, because it doesn’t cause tooth decay. But above and beyond that, it also has an actively positive benefit and an antibacterial effect in the mouth.
There are a whole load of scientific reviews (e.g. this one in 2017) that conclude – cautiously – that its been proved that Xylitol can play a proactive role in the prevention of dental caries (tooth decay). This is why Xylitol appears as an ingredient in so many chewing gums, toothpastes, and mouthwashes.
Non-(Human) Health-Related Considerations for Xylitol
Toxic for Dogs
DON’T give anything containing xylitol to your pets. It’s toxic to dogs, may at least make them sick, and could even lead to death.
Because of xylitol’s toxicity for dogs, it had also been widely assumed that it was toxic to cats, but it seems that view has become discredited. Since the science is weak, however, I just prefer to make sure I keep Xylitol away from my cat as a precaution.
It Isn’t Cheap
As with so many other dietary choices – when deciding to use sugar, or sugar substitutes, or just to wean yourself off sweet things altogether – it’s a question of weighing up all the alternatives. These include product availability, your own economic situation, and the priority or not you place on healthy eating, and/or on including sweet foods in your diet.
Here’s some examples of prices in June 2018 for a 1kg/2lb bag of Xylitol in five countries where low-carb eating is a phenomenon:
- In the UK, you can buy Total Sweet at £10.45 on Amazon.co.uk and £11 in Waitrose supermarket. NKD Living is £9.90 on Amazon.
- In the US, Xyla costs US$20.04 bought on Amazon.com.
- Perfect Sweet in Australia costs AUS$19.95 from the SweetLife website.
- In New Zealand, Nature’s Sweet costs NZ$31.50 (or NZ$64.94 for the powdered version) on the HealthPost website
- And in South Africa the own-brand from the online store of low-carb food specialist MoJoMe costs R145.55 (or the same amount of Xylitol ‘icing dust’ would cost you R208.68 – I suggest you make your own in a coffee grinder instead!).
Where Do I buy Xylitol?
In the UK, brands like Total Sweet and NKD Living are easily available online. Total Sweet is also readily available in most of the major supermarkets, and in Holland and Barrett and other health food stores.
And in other countries, brands readily available online include e.g. Xyla in the US, Perfect Sweet in Australia, Nature’s Sweet in New Zealand, and MoJoMe in South Africa. See above for prices.
How Do I Cook With Xylitol?
How should I convert recipes when substituting Xylitol for Sugar?
Because it is 100% as sweet as sugar, you can use granulated Xylitol 1:1, spoon-for-spoon and weight-for-weight, as a substitute for white sugar for sweetening drinks and in recipes. So there’s no need for any tricky and inexact recipe conversions as there are in some other elements of low-carb baking.
In cooking, I’ve found that Xylitol usually behaves just like sugar. The end-results tend to be the same, or at least very similar.
But one difference to note is that you can’t use Xylitol in place of sugar in leavened bread-making, as yeast can’t feed on it. On a low-carb way of eating, I’m not making leavened bread with wheat flour at the moment anyway. So no problem there!
And another difference is that it doesn’t promote browning, so it won’t hard-caramelise. That means you can’t use it on top of a crème brûlée, for instance.
I don’t find Xylitol quite as versatile as its polyol cousin, Erythritol. That’s because, in the UK, Erythritol can be found in three different sugar substitute types – white granulated, powdered (like icing/confectioners’ sugar), and soft brown. Meanwhile, Xylitol is only straightforward to buy in the basic granulated form (but I make powdered Xylitol myself by grinding it for about 10 seconds in an electric coffee grinder).
Links to Some of My Recipes In Which You Can Use Xylitol as a Sugar Replacement
Here are some delicious recipes of my own in which you can choose to use Xylitol (or Erythritol) with excellent results. And they may give you some ideas for using it as a substitute in your own favourite recipes: