December 27, 2010

Xylitol: Tooth Decays “Magic Pill”

Too bad xylitol has such a chemical name for such a sweet and natural product.  That’s right, xylitol is a naturally occurring product found in Birch trees, as well as the human body.  The human body actually makes about 10-20 grams of it each day. Xylitol is one of the first products mobilized by the body for wound healing.  It is just as sweet as table sugar (sucrose), and can be substituted for sucrose readily. However, as you find out later, it doesn’t cook the same.

History lesson:

Sucrose was probably discovered by humans in Polynesia possibly New Guinea in “the reed which gives honey without bees”.  From there it spread along the Indian Ocean where it began to be cultivated in India before 500 BC.   The majority of the known world didn’t have access to this “wondrous spice” until over 1500 years later.  Before then, the human diet consisted of vegetation, grains, roots, animal fat and protein.  Grains containing an abundance of carbohydrates such as rice have been cultivate for thousands of years, and correlate very well with the onset of dental caries in the human population. However, no increase onset in dental caries matches the correlation with the introduction of concentrated sucrose from sugar cane.  While not completely unheard of before the increases of carbohydrates in the diet, dental caries is more of a historic human problem, than pre-historic one.

The Mouth:

The mouth is the center of the universe for many modern humans today.  Gratification with chocolates, candies, cakes, pastries, colas, sweet drinks or anything containing sugar has become an expected staple in the diet of the post-industrial human population around the world.  Even if you try to limit your diet of sugar, it still creeps in from breads, pastas, canned vegetables, drinks… you name it.  All by itself sugar is really not bad for your teeth.  Placing an extracted tooth in a bath of concentrated sugar will not cause a cavity no mater how long you leave it soaking.  You actually have to have 4 things together to get a dental cavity in a tooth: A tooth, sucrose, bacteria and time.  You have to have time for the bacteria to eat the sugar to produce the acid that harms the tooth.

The mouth is undoubtedly a bacterial haven.  It has over 500 different species of microbes present in the healthy mouth. One particular bacteria called Streptococcus mutans started off its existence as a very minor player, but with the advent of the high carbohydrate diet has blossomed into a tyrannical nightmare.  S. mutans is mainly a carbohydrate eater.  It has receptor sites located on its outer membrane that recognized the presents of a carbohydrate, then pulls the compounds in where it can break the molecules down, and then poops out a waste that damages the tooth.  Very simple little critters.  Bring it in, break it down, poop it out.  Eating a concentrated diet of sugar accelerates this process like throwing nitrogen fertilized on grass, thus making the grass grow at an accelerated rate.  The pooped out products (dental plaque) accumulates on the teeth over time and without removing it on a daily basis melts away the tooth’s outer hard protective layer called enamel.

In comes Xylitol:


Xylitol is quite different from sucrose on the molecular level, but tastes very similar for reasons only your tongue knows.  It has five carbons instead of six (like sucrose) and is a carbohydrate nonetheless.  S. mutans receptor sites recognizes it as a carbohydrate food source and pulls it into to digest with enzymatic processes.  Once inside the cell, the enzymes do not know how to break down the 5 carbon xylitol molecule.  This is where xylitol becomes an aide in fighting tooth decay.  S. mutans is such a simple eating machine it only knows how to bring in carbohydrates, but it doesn’t know how to get rid of unwanted carbohydrates.  This biological dilemma is solved by the bacteria simply doing nothing, and storing the unwanted xylitol somewhere inside its tiny little body eventually leading to decreases in cell divisions and growth. I liken it to if you ate styrofoam popcorn peanuts. It plugs you up!

When you eat more xylitol,  the bacteria eat more xylitol.  If you eat xylitol 5 times per day in the form of mints, chewing gum, granules dissolved in water or some other form of drink (coffee or tea), over a period of time (5-6 weeks) then the population of S. mutans inside your mouth will dramatically decrease.  This decrease in S. mutans population is attributed to the little bodies of the bacteria literally filling up with so much xylitol that there is no more room inside the bacteria to bring in anymore carbohydrate and the bacteria eventually starves to death.  We all know what a good crop of plaque feels like covering our teeth right before we go to bed.  Imagine getting ready to go to bed and rubbing your tongue over your teeth and feel nothing but shiny smooth surfaces.  No plaque!

The Plan:

Remember when we used to use lard as a fat source to cook with?  Umm, pie crust never tasted better!  But then studies showed that animal fat was full of cholesterol and was bad for us.  If you stretched the definition you could say that lard was actually poisoning us.  The healthcare professions mobilized and told their patients to stop eating “bad” fat and begin to eat other types of fats.  We know them today as olive oil, canola oils, flax seed oil, corn oil, safflower oil and the list continues on.  The same can be said for sucrose.  If you want to stretch the definition you could say that sucrose is actually poisoning us.  We see this poisoning in the form of adult and childhood obesity, diabetes, heart disease, not to mention tooth decay and periodontal disease.  As before, the healthcare professional need to mobilize and direct their patient to another safer form of carbohydrate, like xylitol. People have got to take their health seriously and go into the grocery stores and shops and demand that products containing xylitol be supplied.  This is already happening on a small scale.  Products containing xylitol are beginning to trickle into the stores around the world, but not on the scale needed to fight this health pandemic.  Fighting the sugar industry will not be easy, and getting the cost down for raw xylitol will not be easy either. Public demand is the only way to push it into its proper place in the modern human diet.

Rx: The Dental Magic Pill

  1. Go to the store and get some xylitol.
  2. Use the product at least 5 times a day: When you wake, after each meal, and before you go to bed.
  3. Brush twice per day and floss before bed.
  4. Use a non-alcoholic fluoride containing mouthwash at night after brushing and flossing.
  5. Coat your mouth with a xylitol sugar product after the fluoride mouthwash and then go to bed.
  6. Substitue xylitol for sucrose whenever possible in your every day diet. We resurrected the sugar dish/spoon at our house, and sprinkle it on food and drinks all day long.


Xylitol is Gluten free  and can be used if you have Celiac Disease.

Cooking with Xylitol:

As you already know bacteria (and yeast) cannot use xylitol as a source of food.  Therefore, you cannot use xylitol to bake with yeast.  Instead, you will have to use baking soda and powder to make your muffins rise.  Not only that, but the melting point of Xylitol is about 100 degrees high than sucrose. You will have to cook candies with the old fashion “Soft Ball” and “Hard Ball” methods.  Remember, humans have had over 2500 years to learn how to cook with sucrose, and we are just scratching the surface with xylitol.  If you already know a recipe that works well with xylitol then great, pass it on.