Excess sugar consumption is deadly. We all know this. The tricky part is in finding an alternative to sugar that can act as a suitable stand-in. One of the more popular ‘natural’ sugar replacements currently available is xylitol. With fewer calories than cane sugar and numerous health benefits to boot, it would seem that it is a blessing for anyone wanting to embrace a more carb-sensible approach to eating. But, is xylitol as natural or healthy as the manufacturers would like us to believe, or are we being duped by clever marketing into eating yet more highly-processed junk?
A sweet story (or maybe not)…
When xylitol first entered the health food market in the early noughties I was living in the UK and managing a natural remedy dispensary in a hip London wholefood store. It was presented as a new miracle sweetener carefully extracted from the bark of Scandinavian birch trees. The media pack that accompanied the little sachets of white crystalline powder presented such a convincing picture of wholesome goodness that I imagined xylitol production being undertaken by radiant youths in flowing kaftans lovingly coaxing xylitol from tree bark – while harp music tinkled sweetly in the background. The reality, of course, is very different.
Producers will argue that xylitol occurs naturally in many foods, but commercial xylitol is not sourced from those foods. Instead, it is manufactured from the inedible cobs of corn. Now that may not seem like a problem per se, but here’s the rub – the concentration of xylitol in corncobs (and indeed most foods) is in fact very small. What you do find in the cobs is an abundance of a fibrous raw material called xylan, but in order for the xylan in corn to be magically transformed into xylitol it has to undergo some pretty intense chemical processing. You can Wiki xylitol for a blow-by-blow account, but the step that makes me really suspicious is the one that involves hydrogenation.
Tastes like Déja Vu...
Research may be slim on the subject of hydrogenated sugar, but it does call to mind the last time we thought that hydrogenating a food to make it ‘healthier’ turned out to be a regrettable decision – namely in the production of margarine. Those of us old (and lucky) enough to have lived through the eighties will be sure to remember how ‘vegetable spreads’ were touted as a miracle of modern food production for those wanting to reduce saturated fat intake. Fast forward a couple of decades and we learned that messing with the basic chemical structure of plant oils to make them solid at room temperature not only makes them less healthy, but actively toxic for the body. It may be early days with xylitol, but altering the chemical structure of any basic food hardly seems like a good idea given the track record. This is even before we consider the fact that xylitol is bleached to make it look more like cane sugar, or the fact that the corn being used is potentially genetically modified (visit the xylitol.org website and they proudly claim that their ‘non-GMO’ corn is sourced from China, which earlier this year was the subject of a controversial dispute over illegally grown GMO corn).
The evidence in support of xylitol may be really compelling. The concern, however, is not whether these claims are true (it all looks pretty convincing to me), but rather a question of whether the chemical processing involved in creating a food like xylitol makes it suitable for long-term human consumption. Personally, I will not use xylitol and never recommend it to anyone else. As confusing as the world of nutrition can seem, there is a very simple truth that I stick to. It goes like this: eat more processed foods and health suffers. Eat less processed foods and health improves. It is that simple. Processed foods invariably serve the interests of manufacturers and have very little to do with improving the health of the eater. I cannot see why xylitol would be any different. After all, what could be more attractive than taking something that is usually discarded and turning it into gold?
So what can you use?
Of all the non-nutritive sugar alternatives the only one that seems viable is natural whole Stevia (Stevia rebaudiana) leaf, but even this is commonly processed into a powder resembling sugar. There are online sources to buy the whole untreated leaf and many nurseries sell seedlings too. The most sensible approach is to aim for an overall reduction of sugar intake. At the end of the day, the problem stems from the inordinate quantity of sugar consumed by the average adult/child compared with our dietary patterns from as recently as twenty years ago. Instead of sugary foods, enjoy fruit as a source of wholesome sweetness: that’s the real reason why we have eaten it for millennia; and supplement wisely when necessary. But, do think twice before you add xylitol to your shopping list.
Daniel Jardim teaches extensively throughout South Africa to promote seasonal cookery, with a wealth of nutrition information to help individuals make sensible choices about the food they eat.