Eat well

Is xylitol good for your teeth?

Xylitol toothpaste

Elmtree Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Xylitol is a low-calorie sweetener obtained from a variety of plants.

It is added to a range of foods, medications and oral health products, such as toothpaste and chewing gum.

Chewing gum sweetened with xylitol promotes dental health by helping to neutralise plaque acidity on teeth and repairing tooth enamel.

It has the look and feel of table sugar and is just as sweet, but contains 40% fewer calories (2.4kcal/g, compared to 4kcal/g for sugar). When eaten, it has a mouth-cooling effect, with virtually no aftertaste.

Xylitol is a polyol – a type of carbohydrate generally manufactured from birch and other hardwood trees. Polyols are banned from soft drinks in the EU because of their laxative effect.

A variety of fruits and vegetables naturally contain xylitol, including plums, strawberries and cauliflower. Even the human body produces a small amount.

Xylitol is slowly and only partially absorbed in the intestine, and is converted into glucose in the liver. Too much xylitol in the intestine can cause water retention, which can result in diarrhoea. If consumed in large amounts, side effects can include bloating and gas. Unabsorbed xylitol is broken down into carbon dioxide and eliminated.

The EU's Scientific Committee on Food said in a 1985 report that ingesting 50g a day of xylitol can cause diarrhoea. Table top sweeteners containing xylitol must carry the warning: "excessive consumption may induce laxative effects".

In a 2011 review of xylitol’s health claims, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) accepted the claim that xylitol has a lesser effect on blood sugar levels than sugar, due to its slow absorption rate. This means it could help people with impaired glucose tolerance, which is a risk factor for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

There have been claims that xylitol-sweetened chewing gum may help protect against middle ear infections (otitis media); however, the EFSA concluded that there was not enough evidence to support this claim.

The EFSA has not set an upper limit on daily intake of xylitol, meaning there is no health risk from normal consumption levels.

Acceptable daily intake: none specified

Find out what the latest scientific evidence says about these other common artificial sweeteners:

For more information, read: The truth about sweeteners

Page last reviewed: 13/04/2016
Next review due: 13/04/2019