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

Why do people take xylitol?

Xylitol is a sugar-free sweetener added to some foods. It's nearly as sweet as sugar (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 regular sugar. This is because it is absorbed more slowly by the body.

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

Researchers have studied xylitol 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. More studies are needed 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 difficult to set a standard dose.

Can you get xylitol from foods?

Xylitol is extracted from plant material and is available as an ingredient (additiive) in more and more foods, but the amount naturally occurring in foods is very small. 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 if taken 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. A range of doses (7-20 grams daily) have been given to adults and children 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.

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