Mouth Health: The Skinny on Sugar Substitutes

06/02/2010 11:07 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post on chewing gum, and whether it was good or bad. Generally, I said that it wasn't as bad as people perceived, and could be beneficial to your teeth, provided certain sugar-free gums were used. I then gave an example of Trident.

Well, I got many comments on that post (yes, I do read and appreciate them), and one comment mentioned how most flavors of Trident contained Aspartame (Nutrasweet), and a gum that contained Xylitol would be better. Well, while I feel Aspartame is not nearly as bad as some think, I do have to commend the commenter on pointing out Xylitol, as it is definitely something worth discussing. So thanks.

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol. Before we go any further, let's define what a sugar alcohol is. A sugar alcohol is not sugar or alcohol, but it has properties of both (that's where the confusing name comes from.) Essentially, sugar alcohols are sugar substitutes that occur naturally in plants (especially fruits and vegetables), or are manufactured from sugars and starches. There are many different types, such as Sorbitol (which comes from corn syrup), Mannitol, which comes from seaweed (of all places!), Maltitol, (which comes from starch) and many others.

These sugar alcohols all have varying degrees of sweetness -- for example, Sorbitol is about 60 percent as sweet as sugar. This (obviously) makes it not the best "sugar substitute" as far as taste is concerned. The reason why Xylitol takes center stage is that it's the only sugar alcohol that is 100 percent as sweet as sugar in terms of taste. This makes it a widespread sugar substitute. But is it good for you?

The Benefits of Xylitol

Xylitol occurs naturally in many plants, especially in berry-type fruits (particularly strawberries and raspberries). These are sweet fruits, so it's easy to see why this sugar alcohol is popular. It's also very prevalent in Birch (in fact, that's the best way to process it.) It gives all the benefits of sugar, without many of the drawbacks. It has about half the calorie content of sugar, and is not fully absorbed by the body, meaning it does not raise blood sugar levels like pure sugar would. Thus, it is ideal for diabetics as a sugar substitute.

Another huge benefit of Xylitol is that, unlike many other sugar alcohols, the Xylitol molecule has five carbon atoms, as opposed to six. Now, let me apologize in advance for bringing back memories of ninth grade chemistry class, but this is pretty significant. Most mouth bacteria are unable to use this molecule, which means that Xylitol does not promote tooth decay or cavities. In fact, because it prevents the bacteria from "doing their thing," it actually helps prevent cavities. So yes, my blog commenter had a great point -- Xylitol gum is indeed a desirable thing for your teeth, and it gets my endorsement. Just search for "Xylitol gum" online and you'll find plenty.

Additionally, Xylitol has been so effective on oral bacteria that it has also been successfully used as a nasal rinse, and seems to be a solid defense against sinus based infection. Good stuff indeed.

Sounds great! Any side effects?

Okay, you knew this was coming. There are a few things about Xylitol you should know. The first is that overconsumption of such can lead to gastronomical problems, mainly bloating, diarrhea and flatulence. This is because Xylitol is not fully absorbed by the small intestines, and can ferment, creating excess gas and ... well, you know. We need not get into the lurid details (hey, I'm a cosmetic dentist, not a proctologist). This will vary from person to person, and in reality, it needs to be a decent amount -- chewing a few sticks of gum will likely have very little harmful effect. But in terms of human side effects, that's about it. So all in all, it's not a bad deal.

Notice I said "human" in that last sentence. Here's the second thing you need to know about Xylitol -- keep it away from Fido's food bowl. Like some other substances that are okay for us humans (like chocolate), dogs do not react well to Xylitol, and a large dose could kill them. This means no gum chewing for the dog. And chocolate made out of Xylitol is totally out of the question (you likely knew that!)

But other than those two, it's hard to find any drawbacks to Xylitol. Thanks to my commenter for sparking this suggestion, and if you have any comments, they are certainly welcome (and may spawn another post!)

Until next time, keep smiling.