The sweet thing about this sugar

Ever dreamt of a sugar that's low in calories, prevents tooth decay and that has healing properties? Then your luck is in.

Xylitol, a type of sugar that has all these properties – and more – is now available in South Africa. What should you know?

The basics
In its pure form, xylitol is a white crystalline substance that looks and tastes like sugar. It is a natural sweetener that is found in berries, fruits and vegetables. It also occurs in small quantities in the human body.

Discovered by Finnish scientists in the 19th century, xylitol was first derived from birch trees. In Europe, it soon became popular as a safe sweetener for diabetics. The major advantage was that it had no impact on insulin levels.

Xylitol was mass produced in granular form under the brand name “Ultimate Sweetener” in the United States during the late 20th century.

Xylitol differs from table sugar (sucrose) in that it's a sugar alcohol. Sugar alcohols (also known as polyols) are found naturally in fruits and berries and have fewer calories than sucrose. In fact, xylitol has 40% less calories than sugar. A teaspoon of xylitol provides the body with 9,6 calories whereas a teaspoon of sugar amounts to 15 calories.

The list of consumer products to which xylitol is commercially added includes chewing gum, mints, toothpaste and nasal spray.

Consumers can now also buy xylitol in powder form, which makes it easy to add to foods such as breakfast cereal, yoghurt or custard, in an effort to make these more palatable. The only downside is that the powder is quite expensive.

More than a sweetener
Xylitol is more than just a sweetener. According to literature, it also has many other health benefits:

  • Natural bacteria fighter. When xylitol comes into contact with harmful bacteria such as Streptococcus mutans, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Helicobacter influenzae, the bacteria lose their ability to stick to the teeth and membranes of the nose and throat. Most antibiotics kill the bacteria and leave the non-resistant bacteria behind. However, xylitol completely washes away the harmful bacteria.
  • Oral friendly. With regular use, xylitol helps to thwart tooth decay by inhibiting acid formation by bacteria. It also decreases the level of cavity-causing bacteria and plague formation. It helps to harden weakened teeth and aids in the relief of dry mouth by increasing saliva. It also controls infections such as oral thrush.
  • Prevents ear infection. Chewing gum with xylitol thwarts the growth of the bacteria that causes ear infection. It also prevents the bacteria from sticking to the back of the throat, thereby decreasing their chances of multiplying.
  • Safe for diabetics. Xylitol has a low glycaemic index (GI). The sugar alcohol is absorbed slowly, used only partially by the body and has very little effect on blood sugar levels. This is important for diabetics and hypoglycaemics.
  • Possible solution for osteoporosis. According to a recent study done by Finnish researchers, xylitol could be useful in the fight against osteoporosis. In the study, 24 rats were given xylitol as part of their diet for 20 months. The study concluded that regular consumption of xylitol protected against age-related bone loss. Continuous use also increased bone volume.

How safe is it?
When taken in excess, xylitol can have a laxative effect. It's therefore important to incorporate only small amounts of the sugar alcohol into your diet.

Also take note that xylitol can cause serious harm to dogs. Thirty minutes after ingesting products containing xylitol, dogs may experience hypoglycaemia, loss of coordination, depression, collapse and seizure. It can also cause liver failure and blood clotting. Dogs that have ingested xylitol will need immediate medical attention. – (Leandra Engelbrecht, April 2007)


Read more:

Is sugar a baddie?
10 interesting sugar facts

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