Xylitol is a strange ingredient to add to toothpaste. It’s essentially a sugar substitute. Toothpaste isn’t something that you’re meant to eat, and many sugar substitutes are regarded as controversial additives in our diet soft drinks. Xylitol is different. It’s the only sugar substitute known to actually possess benefits for your oral health.
It’s not just that xylitol is better than sugar - it’s that xylitol is great all on its own. Your mouth responds well to xylitol, and it may allow other ingredients in your toothpaste to do their jobs more effectively.
What is Xylitol?
Xylitol is a kind of sugar alcohol derived from plants. This sweetener is derived from many natural sources, such as fruits, vegetables, and birch bark. The name may make xylitol sound like a chemical, but that’s merely a coincidence. The suffix “-itol” is used to denote sugar alcohol compounds. “Xylo” means wood in Greek. The literal translation of xylitol is “wood sugar alcohol”.
Although xylitol is primarily a naturally occurring variant of sugar, they’re far from the same thing. Xylitol is different from sugar in many fantastic ways. It’s less calorically dense, it doesn’t make a major contribution to blood sugar spikes, and it’s less rich in carbohydrates than sugar. This means that xylitol, when consumed, has a lesser impact on human health.
In addition to toothpaste, xylitol is used to sweeten gum, candy, and mints as an alternative to sugar or controversial sugar substitutes. It is sometimes used to sweeten low calorie foods or health foods, like protein shakes, protein bars, or ketogenic diet meals and snacks.
Why Does Toothpaste Need a Sweetener?
Toothpaste doesn’t necessarily need a sweetener, but it certainly benefits from one. In its natural state, toothpaste doesn’t taste very good. You aren’t meant to ingest toothpaste, but it does spend two minutes in your mouth twice a day. If it tasted unpleasant, most people might feel tempted to cut their brushing sessions short. Xylitol works in conjunction with flavorings from natural or artificial sources to make the brushing experience more pleasant.
Xylitol is chosen as the primary sweetener in toothpastes for two main reasons. The first is that sugar should absolutely never be an option. The second is that xylitol provides additional benefits to your oral health that other sweeteners cannot provide. Xylitol is more than an additive to enhance the brushing experience - it’s a naturally derived ingredient that directly benefits your oral health.
Xylitol Versus Sucralose Versus Aspartame
Xylitol doesn’t have the popularity that many other artificial sweeteners have. Sucralose (brand name Splenda) and aspartame are often used to sweeten sugar free soda or tea. Sucralose is a sugar derivative that is, essentially, sugar with the calories removed. Aspartame is an artificial sweetener made from amino acids. Xylitol is a sugar alcohol derived from plants.
A lot of controversy surrounds sweeteners like aspartame that are purely artificial in nature. At the end of the day, these products are chemicals that are totally non-nutritive to the body. While there have been no conclusive findings that aspartame directly correlates to any diseases, there are reports of uncomfortable gas and bloating in people who frequently use aspartame.
Because the body cannot digest it and passes it untouched, this sometimes leads to a buildup of methane in the intestines that causes discomfort in people who consume aspartame. That alone is reason enough to avoid the sweetener. Even if it isn’t inherently dangerous, nobody is having a good time when they’re bloated and gassy. It’s uncomfortable and a little gross. Nothing puts a bigger damper on date night.
Sucralose is made from sugar. Sugar is treated to remove the calories and carbohydrates, and sucralose is the resulting sweetness left behind. Sucralose does undergo a chemical process of separation, but it starts with a natural core ingredient. While there’s nothing inherently harmful about sucralose, there’s nothing inherently helpful about it either.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol extracted directly from plants. It still has calories, although by volume the caloric quantity is less than sugar. Although xylitol is referred to as a sugar alcohol, it is neither sugar nor alcohol. It’s merely a sweet tasting component in birch wood and many plants that is extracted and concentrated to sweeten food, candy, and drinks.
There are no known significant side effects in human xylitol consumption, but there are known benefits. This is what makes xylitol a better sweetener than its other alternatives. Research shows that xylitol possesses benefits for your dental health, which is something that cannot be said of any other alternative to table sugar.
Why is Xylitol the Best Sweetener for Toothpaste?
Oral bacteria create a sticky film called a matrix on your teeth. This film holds them still and allows them to repopulate and gather scraps of the food that you eat. They’re most excited when you eat sweet foods. Oral bacteria feast on sugar. It’s a readily accessible source of energy for them. They eat the sugar and excrete it into acid, which sticks in the matrix and concentrates that acid on your teeth, creating cavities and causing enamel erosion.
Bacteria don’t care about xylitol at all. It doesn’t contain any nutrients they’re craving. The structure of xylitol is different, so even if bacteria do ingest it, they cannot convert it to acid. This is only one of the ways the xylitol works to prevent tooth damage.
How Xylitol Beats Bacteria
When you brush your teeth with a xylitol toothpaste, you’re leaving behind a film. This film is very different from the matrix created by bacteria. If you’ve thoroughly brushed your teeth, you’ve scrubbed that matrix off. Xylitol replaces the matrix with a healthy alternative. Xylitol does not contain any bacteria, acids, or components that aid in tooth erosion. It harmlessly wraps around your teeth.
Bacteria cannot re-establish a matrix over the film left behind by xylitol. They can only stick to the bare surface of the tooth. Xylitol’s harmless film repels bacteria’s harmful film until it completely wears off. Xylitol will stick around until you eat or drink it away. If you brush your teeth with xylitol toothpaste before bed, the benefits should last for nearly the entire night.
The Way Xylitol Aids in Tooth Remineralization
Every part of your body has its own PH - a way to measure how acidic or alkaline something is. It’s never ideal to have an acidic mouth, because tooth enamel erodes away in acidic environments. Some of the foods and drinks we consume will negatively impact our mouth’s PH, pushing us into the acidic zone and jeopardizing our teeth.
Xylitol works to convert the mouth back to an alkaline environment, with a PH somewhere around 7. When the mouth is alkaline, it can best perform its natural reparative duties. The calcium and phosphorus in your saliva from the foods you ate or your toothpaste are able to bond to your enamel, replenishing weak spots and preventing the beginnings of cavities.
That’s why xylitol plays such an important role in tooth mineralization. Using these minerals in an acid environment severely limits their ability to repair your teeth. Fluoride free remineralizing toothpastes that do not contain xylitol may not work as well.
Is Xylitol Safe?
Xylitol is deemed completely safe for people to ingest. The only potential side effect from excessive consumption of xylitol may be gas. You’re unlikely to consume an excessive amount of xylitol if you’re only consuming trace amounts through toothpaste and gum.
Even though it is perfectly safe for humans, xylitol should not be used on animals. Much like dark chocolate, xylitol is completely fine and beneficial to people, but potentially very dangerous to dogs. You shouldn’t use xylitol toothpaste to clean your dog’s mouth. Only use veterinarian approved toothpastes for your dog’s oral health. If your dog accidentally ingests xylitol, immediately bring him to the nearest animal hospital.
Using Xylitol Throughout the Day
Xylitol is often recommended by dentists due to its ability to repel bacteria. If you ever see a package of sugar free gum that says its ADA accepted or recommended by dentists, it’s because the gum contains xylitol. Chewing gum with xylitol for about five minutes after you eat will help to clean your teeth. It neutralizes the acidity of your mouth and begins to establish a film before bacteria has an opportunity to take hold.
Utilizing a steady stream of xylitol throughout the day will keep your teeth protected in between brushing. If you aren’t able to chew gum or you don’t enjoy it, you can use xylitol mints. Allowing a xylitol mint to fully dissolve in your mouth will release enough xylitol into your saliva to effectively circulate it to every tooth.
There are few ingredients that multitask as well as xylitol. It makes your toothpaste taste better, protects your teeth from bacteria, and helps minerals work to restore your enamel all at the same time. Best of all, it’s totally natural and completely safe. It doesn’t get much better than xylitol, and that’s why we use it in our toothpaste.
Source 1 - how xylitol is made
Source 2 - sucralose production
Source 3 - xylitol and dogs