There is a growing trend in confectionary manufacturers to adopt the use of xylitol as a primary sweetener in the likes of gum, mints and candies, but what is xylitol, and what makes it such a popular choice?
Xylitol is white crystalline sugar alcohol that looks and tastes just like sugar, but with 40% fewer calories. It was first discovered in the late 1800s by German and French chemists, and was adopted for widespread use in Finland with the sugar shortages of the Second World War. As uptake increased researchers soon discovered xylitol’s ability to metabolise in the body without using insulin, and later began to fully appreciate xylitol’s unique impact upon oral health.
Most carbohydrates that we consume (sugars and polyols) are based on a 6-carbon monosaccharide structure, such as fructose (fruit sugar), and glucose. These sugars can form bonds with other sugars to form saccharide units. Unlike most sweeteners, xylitol has a unique five-carbon sugar alcohol structure and, as such, is very stable and does not link together with other sugars.
One of the most notable benefits of xylitol’s unique structure is that it appears to be unfavourable in the metabolism of a number of pathogenic bacteria, weakening their ability to proliferate and adhere. This, in turn, reduces bacteria acid fermentation, and so goes a long way to explaining some of xylitol’s key anti-plaque benefits.
Benefits of xylitol in oral health
As a consequence of its unique five-carbon structure, xylitol exerts a specific inhibitory effect on S.mutans – the bacteria most closely associated with tooth decay. Xylitol also helps prevent plaque from adhering to teeth, which helps to stop demineralisation before it begins. Studies further support claims that Xylitol dentifrices, gum and candy significantly reduce the incidence of caries and periodontal disease in both children and adults. Slowly but surely, there is a growing body of evidence to support the use of xylitol to the benefit of oral health. Indeed, according to a recent report published by the ADA Council on Scientific Affairs, sugar-free chewing gum, lozenges and hard candy including xylitol or polyol combinations, ‘could be beneficial in preventing cavities when used as adjuncts to a comprehensive cavity prevention programme’. While the report admits there is still plenty more research to be done, it is in itself a major landmark in the recognition of xylitol as an important tool in the war against dental plaque. With one of the world’s largest dental associations starting to take note, it will not be long before word spreads further still.
Xylitol doesn’t just have applications in the world of dentistry. Its reduced calorie and antibacterial qualities make it suitable for other applications including diet and medicine. Xylitol is as sweet as table sugar, yet its metabolism in the body requires only a very minimal insulin response. It rates at only seven on the glycemic index compared to sucrose, which has a GI rating of 83. Compared with traditional table sugar, xylitol causes a much smaller increase in serum insulin and blood glucose levels with no hypoglycaemic ‘rebound’. This is of major benefit to diabetics who may well consider xylitol a suitable sugar alternative after consultation with their GP.
There is also an increasing weight of evidence to support the use of xylitol for its inhibiting effect on certain forms of bacteria. In a series of studies undertaken in Finland, researchers found that 8.4 grams of xylitol taken orally on a daily basis reduced ear infections by 42% , and 10 grams of xylitol syrup taken daily reduced ear infections by 30% . Evidence would seem to support then a general assertion that xylitol can contribute to creating an environment not conductive to bacterial growth. Indeed the benefits of xylitol are even extending to those with cystic fibrosis, who benefit from the effect xylitol has on the reduction in the salinity of airway surface liquids, in addition to xylitol’s other antibacterial properties.
Looking to the future
Xylitol has long been enjoyed in several counties in Europe and Asia, and is slowly finding its way into homes in the UK. With a growing weight of evidence to support its use, it’s easy to see why the demand for xylitol is increasing so rapidly. As science discovers more ways that xylitol can benefit our health, we will certainly find it being put to use in an increasing number of different products. DH&T
• References available on request
The following recipe was the one used in a xylitol muffin challenge conducted by hygienists Tim Ives and Dave Bridges. They say: ‘It came out good with both sucrose and xylitol (100%). If you use frozen fruit, make sure you get rid of the excess juice. The mixture appears to be very runny, but it comes out a bit “gooey” in the middle – mmmmmmmmm.’
8oz plain flour
2tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg, lightly beaten
8 fl oz milk
4 fl oz vegetable oil
• Mix all the dry ingredients in a bowl, stir in raspberries and make a well in the centre
• Mix together remaining ingredients
• Add to dry and stir gently until mixed in but still lumpy (do not overbeat)
• Spoon into muffin cases and cook in a preheated oven, 200c/400f or gas 6, for 20 minutes until well risen and springy to the touch.
Martin Last, the founder of MPL Marketing Services, is a marketing consultant in the healthcare industry, focusing on food supplements and health-related products. Speaking at regular events in the UK, EU and USA he has expertise on how the changing EU regulatory environment is influencing changes to marketing strategies in the healthcare industry.