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Ask The RD

Question: A friend recently told me about a new sugar substitute she is using called xylitol. She loves it and feels it is far better than the artificial sweeteners on the market. Can you shed some light on xylitol for me?

Answer: Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that is naturally found in some plants, mostly birch bark and corncob. However, in order to extract xylitol from its source, it must undergo processing. A sugar alcohol is essentially a hybrid of a sugar molecule and an alcohol molecule. As a result, sugar alcohols deliver sweet taste, but because their chemical structure has been altered, they do so without prompting the glycemic response one
would expect from a regular sugar molecule.

Used cup for cup in place of sugar, xylitol contains 40% fewer calories and has practically no effect on blood sugar levels or insulin response, leading many to consider it a great sugar substitute. For some time now, food manufacturers have used sugar alcohols in the production of sugarless chewing gum, candies and mints, but these sugar substitutes have recently become more common options for the home cook. Xylitol in particular has become a popular choice for sweetening coffee, tea and other beverages at home.

Many find xylitol has a somewhat cool or minty aftertaste; depending on how you use it, that may or may not be a drawback. As far as safety and toxicity are concerned, the FDA has approved the use of xylitol in foods since the 1960s. While it has proved to be effective at reducing the risk of tooth decay, consuming large quantities may cause a laxative effect.

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