What Is Xylitol: Benefits, Side Effects, and Uses Explained

Want to know more about xylitol, the popular sugar substitute? Signos dives into the benefits, side effects, and uses of this sugar alcohol.

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by
Caroline Thomason
— Signos
Dietician + Diabetes Educator (CDCES)
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
July 18, 2024
June 13, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

Popular with low carb and low sugar crowds, xylitol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol commonly used as a sugar substitute. Unlike traditional sugars, xylitol has a similar sweetness but significantly fewer calories, making it a popular choice for those looking to reduce their caloric intake, especially from added sugars. Chemically, xylitol is classified as a polyol, a type of carbohydrate, and is found in the fibers of many fruits, vegetables, and grains.

Xylitol is often added to food products like sugar-free gum, candies, and baked goods, providing sweetness without the negative effects of added sugars. Surprisingly, xylitol is known for its dental health benefits, as it can help reduce the risk of cavities and tooth decay. Its low glycemic index also makes it a favorable option for people monitoring their blood sugar, as it does not cause significant spikes after eating.

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What Are the Benefits of Xylitol?

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From promoting oral health to supporting weight loss efforts, this natural sweetener has various advantages beyond its low-calorie content. Here are some of the key benefits of incorporating xylitol into your diet:

  • Boosts Dental Health: Research has consistently shown that xylitol helps reduce the risk of cavities and tooth decay. Xylitol inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria that contribute to dental caries. By reducing the levels of these bad bugs, xylitol decreases the production of acid in the mouth, thus preventing the demineralization of tooth enamel. Xylitol also stimulates saliva production, which further helps neutralize acids and aids in remineralization of teeth.
  • Reduces Ear and Yeast Infections: Xylitol has been found to impede the growth of certain bacteria and yeast, thereby helping to prevent infections. For instance, xylitol can reduce the incidence of ear infections in children by inhibiting the growth of bacteria in the nasopharynx. Plus, xylitol's antibacterial properties extend to yeast, reducing the likelihood of yeast infections. 
  • Low Glycemic Index: Xylitol has a minimal impact on blood sugar levels, making it an ideal sweetener for people with diabetes or folks mindful of their blood sugar. With a glycemic index of around seven, xylitol does not cause significant spikes in blood glucose levels, which may allow you to enjoy sweet foods without the adverse effects of excess added sugars.
  • Supports Weight Management: Xylitol provides about 40% fewer calories than sugar, which can help reduce overall caloric intake. Additionally, xylitol's ability to contribute to the sweetness of food without an aftertaste makes it a suitable substitute in various foods and beverages, reducing sugar consumption without sacrificing your favorite flavors.2

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href=what-is-inverted-sugar>Inverted Sugar: What Is It, and How Does It Affect Your Glucose or Metabolism?</a>.</p>

What Are Xylitol Side Effects?

While xylitol is generally considered safe for human consumption, it can cause some side effects, especially when consumed in large amounts. Like all sugar alcohols, xylitol has a laxative side effect as it cannot be fully broken down in the small intestines, leading to gastrointestinal discomfort. Common symptoms include bloating, gas, and diarrhea. These effects are typically mild and temporary, often subsiding as the body adjusts to the increased consumption of xylitol. 

If you’re on insulin, beware that xylitol has a small but less significant effect on your blood sugar compared to table sugar. You’ll want to know all artificial sweeteners on a nutrition label and adjust your medications accordingly to prevent hypoglycemia—or a low blood sugar episode.

Start with small amounts and gradually increase intake to minimize potential digestive issues. If you have a sensitive stomach or are concerned, check with a dietitian or your trusted health care professional before adding sugar alcohols into your diet.

What Foods Contain Xylitol?

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As a natural sweetener, xylitol is found in various food products, particularly those marketed as sugar-free or low-calorie. Xylitol and other sugar alcohols can also be found in other products, such as baked goods, ice cream, and beverages. You might also find xylitol-containing ingredients or similar sugar substitutes in supplements, protein shakes, or nutrition bars.

Here are some common food products that contain xylitol:

  • Sugar-Free Candies: Many sugar-free gums, mints, hard candies, and even mouthwash and toothpaste use xylitol as a sweetener to provide a pleasant taste without the added calories of sugar. These products also benefit from xylitol's dental hygiene properties, reducing bacteria.
  • Jams and Jellies: Xylitol is often used in sugar-free or reduced-sugar jams and jellies. It allows these spreads to maintain their sweetness and flavor while significantly reducing their calorie content, making them a healthier option for those watching their sugar intake.
  • Honey Substitutes: While not a direct substitute for conventional honey, xylitol-based syrups mimic the sweetness and texture of honey. These products are an option for those who want a honey-like experience without the high sugar content.
  • Nut Butters: Some brands of nut butters, like peanut butter, especially those labeled as low-sugar or sugar-free, incorporate xylitol to add a touch of sweetness.
  • Yogurt: Certain varieties of yogurt, particularly those marketed as low-sugar or sugar-free, may contain xylitol or other sugar alcohols, maintaining the product’s natural sweetness while reducing its overall sugar content.

What Are the Alternatives to Xylitol?

While xylitol is a popular sugar substitute, several other alternatives offer similar benefits. These alternatives can vary in their sources, sweetness levels, and potential health effects, providing options for reducing sugar intake. Here are some common alternatives to xylitol:

Sorbitol

Sorbitol is another sugar alcohol often used in sugar-free and low-calorie foods. It has a lower glycemic index than regular sugar, making it suitable for people with diabetes. Sorbitol is commonly found in sugar-free gums, candies, and baked goods. 

Erythritol

Erythritol is a sugar alcohol well-known for its digestive tolerance compared to other sugar alcohols. It provides about 70% of the sweetness of sugar with virtually no calories. Erythritol is often used in sugar-free and low-calorie products, including beverages, chocolates, and baked goods.

Stevia

Stevia, a natural sweetener derived from the leaves of the Stevia plant, is significantly sweeter than sugar, so a smaller amount is needed to achieve the same level of sweetness. Stevia is calorie-free and has no impact on blood sugar levels, making it a popular choice for people with diabetes and those looking to reduce their calorie intake.

Agave Nectar

Agave nectar is a natural sweetener derived from the agave plant. Its low glycemic index makes it a popular option for those monitoring their blood sugar levels. Agave nectar is sweeter than sugar, so less may be needed to achieve the same level of sweetness. However, it still contains sugar and might not be the best fit for folks who want to keep blood sugar levels stable or reduce total sugar in their diet.

Learn More About How to Improve Blood Sugar Health With Signos’ Expert Advice

Choosing the proper medication and dietary strategies is crucial for improving health, managing diabetes, and weight loss. Effective management of blood sugar levels can prevent complications associated with diabetes, and Signos' experts offer personalized advice and insights that can help you make informed decisions about your health. By understanding how different medications and lifestyle changes impact blood sugar, you can achieve better control and improve your quality of life.

For more information on how Signos can improve health, you can read more about it here. To deepen your understanding of glucose levels and their impact on health, explore our blog. If you're unsure whether Signos is the right fit for you, take a quick quiz to find out.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href=healthy-sweet-snacks>Snack Smart: 15 Healthy & Blood Sugar-Friendly Sweet Snacks</a>.</p>

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References

  1. Pienihäkkinen, K., Hietala-Lenkkeri, A., Arpalahti, I. et al. The effect of xylitol chewing gums and candies on caries occurrence in children: a systematic review with special reference to caries level at study baseline. Eur Arch Paediatr Dent 25, 145–160 (2024).
  2. Salli K, Lehtinen MJ, Tiihonen K, Ouwehand AC. Xylitol’s Health Benefits beyond Dental Health: A Comprehensive Review. Nutrients. 2019; 11(8):1813. 
  3. Nontokozo Z. Msomi, Ochuko L. Erukainure, Veronica F. Salau, Kolawole A. Olofinsan, Md. Shahidul Islam, Comparative effects of xylitol and erythritol on modulating blood glucose; inducing insulin secretion; reducing dyslipidemia and redox imbalance in a type 2 diabetes rat model,Food Science and Human Wellness, 2023; 12(6): 2052-2060.
  4. Mazi TA, Stanhope KL. Erythritol: An In-Depth Discussion of Its Potential to Be a Beneficial Dietary Component. Nutrients. 2023;15(1):204. Published 2023 Jan 1. doi:10.3390/nu15010204
  5. Ajami M, Seyfi M, Abdollah Pouri Hosseini F, et al. Effects of stevia on glycemic and lipid profile of type 2 diabetic patients: A randomized controlled trial. Avicenna J Phytomed. 2020;10(2):118-127. 
  6. Saraiva A, Carrascosa C, Ramos F, Raheem D, Raposo A. Agave Syrup: Chemical Analysis and Nutritional Profile, Applications in the Food Industry and Health Impacts. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022;19(12):7022. Published 2022 Jun 8. doi:10.3390/ijerph19127022

About the author

Caroline Thomason is a dietitian, diabetes educator, and health writer based in Washington, DC.

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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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