By: Riaan van der Walt

A Sugar Substitute That Should Be Taken Seriously

In a world where 80% or more of the food that we find in our supermarkets contains sugar, and the consensus on the harmful effects of excess sugar is now overwhelming, leaving only the most perversely incentivised individuals denying this, we are left with a bit of a serious problem…Sweet stuff tastes nice! Further still, we have all trained our palates that sweet is almost the only option…Enter Xylitol.

What Is It?

Without going into too much of the boring details, it’s a plant made substance that literally looks like a sugar molecule and an alcohol molecule had a baby. They call it a sugar-alcohol (Not the most imaginative group these scientists). Now the critical stuff to know is that your body doesn’t see it a as alcohol, so it doesn’t make you feel drunk or hurt your liver, and your body doesn’t see it as sugar and metabolises it very differently. More slowly and independent of Insulin, the hormone involved in sugar metabolism. There is one critical similarity though… it is sweet!

Fewer Calories Than Sugar?

The straight answer here is yes, about 2/3rds…but that’s not the big deal. The big deal is, as I mentioned above, your body burns xylitol far slower than sugar. The fancy description for this is low GI. To put the difference into perspective, normal table sugar has a GI rating of around 60, and xylitol has a GI rating of only about 7!

This issue of speed is what underpins the critical truth that most people don’t know: Not all calories are equal. You see, when food rushes into your bloodstream (high GI) like sugar and white starch especially, your body urgently needs to use what it can and store the rest. (insulin is the messenger involved in this process, telling your fat cells to accept sugar from your bloodstream to store). But when food is slowly absorbed, like most Whole Food, your body has the time and inclination to use more of it and store less of it.

This is one of the reasons that people trying to lose weight, living by the commonly used meme of “calories in vs calories out” are just not getting the full story. It is one part of the incredibly complex algorithm that makes up your metabolism.

Are We Sure It Doesn’t Cause Some Other Problem?

Well, so far yes! It has attracted a decent amount of scientific scrutiny, and all research where it is used in “everyday sugar equivalent” quantities in people shows great tolerance.

Beyond that, it appears to actually be good for your teeth! Xylitol actively kills the bacteria that causes plaque. Similar benefits have been shown in ear infection rates too.

Let me add here that like almost all other food, there are a tiny minority of people who are sensitive to it, and they should stay clear. But the chances are very small. You know that you are one of these people if you develop Gastrointestinal irritation. Very high daily doses can have this effect on many people, so this is one of the reasons that you wont see Xylitol in soft drinks, where people consume massive amounts of sugar.

So It’s All Good?

Well, sadly, no…Xylitol is extremely toxic to dogs. The amount found in a single chewing gum can cause immediate life risk to small breeds.

Now, I don’t know about you, but my first born child is a Golden Retriever…and despite our best efforts, my children (of the non-canine variety) are constantly feeding him everything that we feed them. So if you have dogs, Xylitol is a potentially unmanageable risk in the house.

Final Thoughts:

Before all you non-dog owners rush out and buy a tub of Xylitol and put 7 teaspoons in every cup of coffee, there is one more thing to consider…your palate.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, through a lot of exposure, we have convinced our palates that sweetness is the finishing touch to every dish, snack or meal, and that is more of the problem than we give it credit. The truth is that Xylitol is very expensive. So to expect that you will easily be able to use it in all of your baking, tea, coffee, deserts and furthermore that restaurants or relatives of yours that provides you with food are going to do the same, is unrealistic. If we keep our palates convinced that sweetness is essential to food through overexposure we will un-avoidably lose the fight against consuming sugar in excess.

For this reason, I see xylitol as a fantastic tool that we should be using when cutting down on sweetness when we choose food. It’s a step down therapy, not a substitute… it’s kind of like morphine to your heroin addiction… Best of luck!

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