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Xylitol is a carbohydrate found in the birch tree and several kinds of fruit. It's got a chemical structure that looks like a cross between a sugar and an alcohol, but really it is neither.

Why do people take xylitol?

Xylitol is a sugar-free sweetener added to some foods. It's nearly as sweet as sucrose, but has fewer calories.

People with diabetes sometimes use xylitol as a sugar substitute. Blood sugar levels stay at a more constant level with xylitol than with sucrose or regular sugar. This is because it is absorbed more slowly by the body.

Some types of gum or oral care products, such as toothpaste or mouthwash, also contain xylitol. Mouth bacteria can't use xylitol as a source of energy. So this may help prevent tooth decay.

Xylitol has been studied in children with frequent earaches to prevent acute attacks of middle ear inflammation (otitis media). One way it may help is by inhibiting the growth of bacteria.

Researchers need more studies to confirm its effectiveness for this and other uses.

Optimal doses of xylitol have not been set for any condition. Quality and active ingredients in supplements may vary widely from maker to maker. This makes it very hard to set a standard dose.

Can you get xylitol naturally from foods?

Xylitol is extracted from plant material and is available as an ingredient in more and more foods. In addition to gum, xylitol can now be found in some hard candies, chocolate, table syrup, jams, and jellies.

What are the risks of taking xylitol?

Xylitol is mostly safe, especially when you take it in amounts found in food. The FDA has approved xylitol as a food additive or sweetener.

The manufacturer recommends up to 3.3 grams of xylitol three times a day for children to prevent recurrent ear infections. Up to 15.6 grams have been given to children daily to help prevent tooth decay.

Side effects. If you take large amounts of xylitol, such as 30 to 40 grams, you may experience diarrhea or gas. Increasing the dose gradually may help minimize these effects.

Risks. There is not enough information to confirm xylitol's safety in pregnant and breastfeeding women, so they should not use it for medicinal purposes. Although there is some concern about tumor growth from high doses over long periods, this has been from animal studies. More research is needed.

If you are a dog owner, be aware that xylitol can be toxic to dogs, even in small amounts.

Interactions. Doctors don't know of any interactions with other herbs, supplements, drugs, or foods.

The FDA does not regulate supplements. Be sure to tell your doctor about any you're taking, even if they're natural. That way, your doctor can check on any potential side effects or interactions with medications, foods, or other herbs and supplements.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on December 06, 2012

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