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Xylitol - a healthy substitute for sugar?

Xylitol - a healthy substitute for sugar?

by Doris Penner

The scariest part about Halloween—aside from the ghost costumes and hanging cobwebs in unexpected places—is the amount of sugar kids ingest. Let’s face it, the reason why most children look forward to October 31 is the candy—lollipops, chocolate bars, gummie drops and more—they lug in after an evening of trick-or-treating. While a high intake of sugar is a problem for many Canadians year-round, it takes an upsurge at certain seasons like Christmas and Halloween—and there’s no doubt it is harmful to the human body.  Are sugar substitutes the answer? Indeed, it may be part of the solution—but caution should be exercised when choosing an alternative.

While it would take a book to discuss the place of sugar in the modern diet and the negative effects it has on the human body, the core of the matter is (and you’ve heard it before) this popular white crystalline substance contains a considerable number of calories but no essential nutrients. Thus, one of the dangers is that sugar-rich foods will take the place of nutritious foods and lead to malnutrition. Sugar, of course, is very bad for the teeth, providing “food” for bacteria which leads to decay and wearing down of enamel.

In addition, sugar may cause insulin resistance, a stepping stone to other conditions such as diabetes (since insulin is the hormone that takes glucose out of the bloodstream) and it is one of the leading causes of obesity which brings with it a whole range of health risks.


Eliminate pop

Most Canadians would be wise to cut back on sugar consumption which is easy to say and hard to do. However, a start would be to eliminate pop and other sweet drinks from the diet, and limit desserts and candy to special occasions. Read labels and avoid food products that have sugar (it goes by any of a hundred different names) listed near the top. It seems human nature is programmed to enjoy sweet foods, and a small amount of sugar (which includes honey, jams and syrups) can be ingested without guilt.

There are also a variety of sugar substitutes on the market which may be used in baking or to sweeten drinks, as well as products on grocery shelves which incorporate sugar substitutes and thus are labelled “sugar-free.”  What should be noted, however, is that not all substitutes are created equal—in fact, some are as harmful to the body as sugar itself.

The general rule of thumb is to avoid “artificial” sweeteners—that is those that have been created synthetically in laboratories from various components, some of which in themselves are not harmful. The problem is that in many cases the body cannot properly metabolize these foreign substances and very few studies have been done on humans to determine long-term effects.

One sweetener to be recommended is xylitol, a natural product that looks and tastes like sugar, is found in many fruits and vegetables and produced by the body in small amounts. For commercial purposes, xylitol comes from mainly two sources—corn fibres or birch trees with corn fibres being the preferred source since this plant form is more sustainable. Xylitol has a “natural” flavour with no unpleasant aftertaste.


Contains calories

Xylitol is recognized not only as a safe sugar substitute, but as a substance that in itself has some health benefits. It should be noted that xylitol contains some calories—about one-third fewer than sugar. However, xylitol is slowly absorbed into the blood stream (contrary to table sugar), which means no sugar spikes (its glycemic index is 7 compared to 83 for sugar). Thus it is very appropriate for diabetic diets.

In addition, studies have shown that xylitol may reduce tooth decay rates even in high risk groups—those prone to high counts of oral bacteria, or practising poor oral hygiene. It appears to inhibit growth of S. mutans, the primary bacterium associated with dental caries, as well as reduces plaque growth. Thus many dentists and health professionals endorse the use of xylitol as a component in toothpastes and breath mints.

Xylitol is also found in chewing gums and candy, which might be part of the answer for consuming Halloween treats. It would, no doubt, be a relief to parents to know that the candy ingested by their children is counteracting tooth decay instead of aiding it.

You might also wish to experiment with bulk xylitol in baking your favourite cookies and cakes. Keep in mind, however, that moderation is the key even with xylitol since it does contain calories, and virtually no essential nutrients.