Why are some subjects, like xylitol, so polarized–some experts praise them while others throw them under the bus?
In the same vein as our article on the safety of brushing with baking soda, today let’s explore whether it’s a safe and wise choice to use xylitol in the mouth on a regular basis.
As a quick personal disclaimer, for many years, we were rather strongly in the “anti-xylitol” camp.
Like many folks who have been on the health food bandwagon for decades, there was a point when we wondered if we should replace any sugar in our diets with xylitol.
Then one day we did a simple experiment and forever changed our perspective on xylitol. However, that story will have to wait for another day.
In today’s discussion, we’ll share our thoughts on the primary risks and benefits of using xylitol. It’s our hope that this insight will assist you in determining whether xylitol deserves a place in your oral hygiene routine.
For clarity, this discussion is only going to focus on the use of xylitol in the mouth, not on the broader issues of using xylitol as a sugar substitute.
While it’s true that ‘what goes in the mouth goes into the whole body’, the sheer quantity of any substance (including xylitol) is much, much greater if we consume it as compared to if we just use it in the mouth.
With that said, let’s jump in.
We see three distinct risks associated with using xylitol in the mouth on a regular basis.
Risk #1: Potential GMO product
Most xylitol is made from corn. Unfortunately, most corn is genetically modified.
Now, I’m sure there are some scientists out there who would argue that xylitol that’s made from corn (GMO or not) is molecularly identical to xylitol that’s made from birch or other wood pulp. (Historically, xylitol was made from birch trees.)
We are staunchly on one side of the GMO subject, and we prefer not to be guinea pigs in any experimentation with the relative safety of any genetically modified organisms. So we stick with non-gmo ingredients at all costs.
Want to make your own toothpowders? Thankfully, there’s an easy workaround to the GMO issue with xylitol: we can purchase xylitol that’s derived from birch. In fact, here’s a source for birch-based xylitol that’s produced in the US. 🙂
Risk #2: Highly processed product
The fibers of many fruits contain small amounts of naturally-existing xylitol.
However, the xylitol that we know as consumers is produced by hydrogenating xylan, a plant cellulose.
In other words, most xylitol isn’t nature-made, like real honey or maple syrup is. We can’t just tap a birch tree and boil down the sap into xylitol.
It might seem scary to see the word ‘hydrogenation’ in this explanation of how xylitol is produced (after all, most of us are now aware of the dangers of hydrogenated vegetable oils, like margarine). Should we steer clear of xylitol because of the hydrogenation?
The xylitol hydrogenation process commonly involves metal catalysts, like nickel, palladium or platinum. However, we think that the risk of metal residue toxicity is minimal to nonexistent provided that the xylitol is being manufactured in the US, Canada or Europe.
So, to help ensure that the xylitol you use is free from metal residue, be sure that it’s birch-based and that it was produced in North America or Europe.
Risk #3: Prebiotic (feeds bacteria)
One of the main arguments against xylitol is that it will, ‘rip apart your insides’ and ‘cause leaky gut’. (1) The research suggests that these claims are exaggerated.
It’s true that if someone eats too much xylitol, it will cause diarrhea, gas, and bloating. However, this isn’t due to xylitol ripping apart our digestive tracts.
Xylitol is a prebiotic, meaning it’s food for the bacterial colonies in our digestive systems. So, if a person consumes too much xylitol in one sitting, they may develop an overgrowth of bacteria in the small and large intestine, which, in turn, results in the gas and bloating.
This is why people who are working to recover from leaky gut are warned to avoid eating xylitol.
You see, xylitol is a sugar alcohol, also known as a polyol. Experts involved with FODMAPs, SIBO, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, and the GAPS diet suggest that anyone who has compromised digestion should avoid eating xylitol. A big component to healing this bacterial overgrowth is to avoid feeding the resident bacteria in our bellies, which helps to reduce their populations.
We consider leaky gut to be extremely widespread and often undiagnosed, and we agree that it would be wise for anyone who has digestive challenges to avoid eating xylitol.
(As a side note, we should mention that xylitol is very toxic to dogs. Research suggests that unlike humans and many other mammals, dogs absorb xylitol extremely quickly, which can challenge their liver’s capacity to process the xylitol. This can cause them serious injury or even death. So, please keep all xylitol and xylitol-containing products well out of reach of any pets.)
Now that we’ve explored some potential risks of using xylitol in the mouth on a regular basis, let’s take a look at some of the potential benefits.
Benefit #1: Prebiotic
Wait a second… How can the fact that xylitol is a prebiotic be both a risk AND a benefit?
Like so many substances, the dosage defines whether xylitol will support or undermine our health.
Xylitol proponents suggest 5 ‘exposures’ a day to promote improved oral health.
Here’s our concern with this constant xylitol drip…
Just because something seems good for us doesn’t mean that more of it will be better.
The ‘sugar demon’ that each of us has within us (provided you grew up on earth in the 20th or 21st century) constantly lures us to eat more sweet foods. So, even though xylitol doesn’t negatively impact insulin production like sugar does, the more sweet foods we consume, the more sweet foods we crave. Sweet is sweet (yes, even if it’s stevia).
We liken eating xylitol to a ‘gateway drug’. Regularly consuming xylitol in your diet will increase your cravings for sweet foods.
So, a little xylitol gum here and there seems fine and offers the mouth support toward a healthier microbiome balance, but let’s not go overboard and eat lots of it.
Just be watchful for your sugar demon’s attempts to increase your sweet consumption. The research very clearly shows that our systems function most efficiently when we eat more healthy fats and eat very, very little to no highly sweet foods.
Benefit #2: Reduces risk of tooth decay
This has been exhaustively established in the scientific literature studying how to stop cavities.
The main ‘thug bug’ implicated with tooth decay is called ‘Mutans Streptococcus’, or ‘strep mutans’ for short.
In the mouth, strep mutans consumes xylitol along with fermentable carbohydrates, like sugar. However, because xylitol is a polyol (sugar alcohol), it doesn’t ferment the same way that most sugars do. As such, xylitol doesn’t contribute to the proliferation of strep mutans.
In fact, when xylitol is used habitually, over time, the strep mutans strains become less virulent (meaning that the main thug bug implicated with tooth decay gradually becomes weaker). (2)
Xylitol also helps us address tooth decay because its presence makes the thug-bug-formed dental plaque less adhesive.
Some studies show up to a 50% reduction in plaque accumulation from using xylitol in the mouth. (3) Plaque adhesion is a big deal when we’re talking about tooth decay. So, the fact that xylitol helps make plaque less adhesive is a real benefit in itself.
For a deeper dive into the benefits and strategies to keep plaque thin, check out our articles How to Balance Your Oral Flora and Can Some Plaques Actually Help Our Teeth Stay Healthy?
Benefit #3: Supports remineralization of tooth tissue
This is big. As we have discussed here for years, it’s best to use both ‘in the mouth’ and ‘system-wide’ strategies to travel this path to optimal oral health.
To help support greater remineralization system-wide, we can learn what causes decay, which foods undermine our oral health, and which foods support greater oral health. However, to really optimize our oral health, it’s also important to have ‘in the mouth’ tools to help with remineralization.
In the mouth, remineralization occurs because calcium and phosphorus are held in an available state to chemically remineralize tooth tissue.
An article in the International Journal of Dentistry titled, Sugar Alcohols, Caries Incidence, and Remineralization of Caries Lesions: A Literature Review states that xylitol helps maintain calcium and phosphorus in a stable state that’s available to be used to remineralize our teeth.
“It is important to observe, however, that the stabilizing effect of polyols (xylitol) on the Ca phosphate systems of the oral cavity is predominantly directed to the solubility of salivary Ca and phosphate, rendering their prolonged, dissolved, supersaturated state possible, compared with the presence of, say, sucrose, which tends to initiate instantaneous precipitation of Ca and phosphate in saliva (thus eliminating a part of those substances from remineralization). The polyols’ role in saliva and plaque fluid is one of stabilization; Ca and phosphate salts are stabilized in the presence of polyols…” (3)
Another study suggests that in addition to supporting surface remineralization, xylitol can also support remineralization of deeper dentinal layers of the tooth structure. (4)
Indirect Bonus Benefit: Supports a healthier pH in the mouth
We’ll mention that xylitol also supports a healthier pH balance in the mouth.
However, the literature suggests that the support isn’t directly from the use of xylitol, but rather from the fact that the presence of xylitol in the mouth causes increased salivation. It’s the saliva that balances the pH in our mouths.
If you’d like to read more about the role of pH in the creation or destruction of oral health, here’s an article on tracking your saliva pH. Also, feel free to check out our article and video that explain how to do Mouth Probiotics, a simple (free) technique to increase your saliva.
Putting together the pros and cons…
After this extensive review of the literature, we changed our stance on using xylitol in our mouths.
To us, the benefits of xylitol (remineralization support, reduced tooth decay, and reduced plaque adhesion) clearly support the use of xylitol in our oral hygiene routines.
Just make sure that the xylitol you choose isn’t coming from China or from the GMO agri-biz industry.
That’s precisely why we chose to include birch-based xylitol in the formulation of OraWellness Shine, our remineralizing tooth whitening powder. You can learn more about how Shine works here. You can also read the reviews for Shine here.
Looking for additional support? If you’d like to learn some simple strategies you can apply at home to help you stop and even reverse tooth decay, be sure to check out our FREE eBook, “How to stop tooth decay and remineralize your teeth” here.
Please remember this! We love our family pets! Of course, we want to help them keep their teeth clean and healthy. Xylitol can be fatally dangerous to dogs. Please never use a xylitol-containing human toothpaste or tooth powder on your dog’s teeth.
How about you? Do you use xylitol? Do you consider xylitol safe? Please share your stance in the comments below so we can all continue to learn from one another.
Helpful, Related Resources:
How to Stop Tooth Decay and Remineralize Your Teeth [free eBook]
Is Baking Soda Safe to Brush with? [article]
How Teeth Decay (the interplay between sugar, pH and microbes) [article]
Why eating healthy fats is our #1 diet hack to heal cavities [article]
What’s the Real Cause of Tooth Decay? (and how to stop it) [article]
What Foods Undermine Our Oral Health and Why? [article]
What TO Eat to Support Optimal Oral Health [article]
Tracking Your Saliva pH: How to Know You Are Heading in the Right Direction [article]
Is the key to greater oral health already in your mouth? [article and free video tutorial]
OraWellness Shine Remineralizing Tooth Whitening Powder [product solution]
How Shine Works [informational video]