Xylitol is a natural hydrogenated carbohydrate that in pure form resembles white crystals and can be used as a sugar substitute or artificial sweetener. It can be found in certain fruits and vegetables, which include corn, oats and berries, as well as in the bark of birch trees. Additionally, humans produce a daily amount of xylitol when the body breaks down its carbohydrates.
The word "xylitol" is of Greek origin. It is a combination of the Greek word "xylos," which means wood, and the suffix "itol," which means alcohol. Xylose can be isolated from a wood source and hydrogenated. This explains why xylitol is classified as a sugar alcohol. Other examples of this group include glycerol and sorbitol.
Xylitol was discovered in the late 1800s based on the research of chemists from France and Germany. By the 1960s, xylitol had entered popular use as an alternative sweetener for people with diabetes because the body does not need insulin to process the substance, like it does sugar. Xylitol also provides sweetness without any unpleasant aftertaste. By the end of the 20th century, it had become a common additive for special dietary food products, making it the most popular sugar alcohol in the world.
An additional reason for xylitol's popularity is its similarity to table sugar, or sucrose, but it does not possess the level of sweetness of sucrose. While 1 teaspoon of the hydrogenated carbohydrate has about 10 kilocalories (kcals), the same amount of table sugar offers 15 kcals. Thus xylitol contains less energy than sucrose, which considerably lowers its impact on the blood sugar level of people with diabetes. Moreover, due to the adverse effects of excessive sugar and refined carbohydrates, the substance can be used to prevent or combat conditions such as blood pressure, weight gain, bad cholesterol, low blood sugar levels, and by extension, heart disease, obesity and hypoglycemia.
The most well known use for this particular sugar alcohol is in chewing gum and hard candy. It is also known for its oral hygiene applications. Such use was discovered in the 1970s, when Finnish researchers suggested that the substance could be greatly beneficial to dental health. Specifically, xylitol can be used to reduce plaque formation, assist in halting the development of cavities and increase saliva for repairing damaged enamel in teeth. It can be found in dental products such as toothpaste, fluoride tablets and mouthwash.