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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

42: Xcellent Xylitol

A little while back, I wrote an article (Blog #34) about the devastating effects of eating a dessert and how I was several weeks getting over it. Shortly after that, I happened to read about a new kind of sweetener, coconut palm sugar, made from the nectar of the tree flowers.

Further reading revealed that this kind of sugar, named xylitol, was discovered at about the same time by both French and German chemists, late in the 1800s, and became popular throughout Europe as a safe sweetener for diabetics. During World War II when sugar was in short supply, xylitol became a popular substitute.

What we now know about this sugar is that it has a very low glycemic index (GI). If you haven’t heard of GI before, Wikipedia explains it as “a measure of how quickly blood sugar levels rise after eating a particular type of food, … relative to consumption of pure glucose. Glucose has a glycemic index of 100.” The GI of sugar ranges from about 60 to 70; xylitol is 7 to 13.

As you look into GI information, you will find much discussion on the difference between “glycemic index” and “glycemic load.” However, for my purposes in this article, and in my kitchen where I have longed for a real and healthy alternative to sugar, I am concerned only with substituting the one straight across for the other, so GI is all that matters. Xylitol has the same sweetness as sugar, so it is used in the same amounts in recipes. With Thanksgiving coming up, I was looking forward to trying it in my pumpkin pie recipe, hoping that maybe I could indulge a little along with my family, without suffering a debilitating crash.

Well, I mixed up my pastry, which I make with half whole wheat flour and half unbleached white, using butter as shortening because I refuse to have “may-be-hydrogenated pig fat” in my home. And into the shell I poured the spicy blend of pumpkin et al. And was that pie ever good! I carefully limited myself to a half-serving and braced myself for the fall. But it never came.

The next afternoon I phoned Greg, who was already on the road again, and told him that in spite of the pie, I was feeling really good. In fact, I said, I felt better than usual.

“So what do you think?” he asked.

And I replied, “I think God is telling me I need to eat more pumpkin pie.”

He was quick to concur. He knows that if I am to eat more pie, I have to make more pie, which means that he will get more pie.

The xylitol I bought was, as I mentioned, made from the coconut tree. It’s rather coarse, and brown in colour, so best suits recipes calling for brown sugar. But now I found a white xylitol, made from birch trees. And when Greg next came home from his project in Vernon, with a box of huge apples from his client, I made the first apple pie that our household has seen in over 15 years. Hubby was ecstatic. He thought it was the best apple pie he’d ever eaten. And I ate lots, with no ill effects.

There are other sources for xylitol being investigated, including corn, but these might best be avoided, due to the GMO question. Coconut as a source is considered to be the most sustainable, being harvested from the flowers. Birch, on the other hand, must be cut down to extract the sugar, so responsible management here is really important. But a great asset of the birch product is that it has the most significant dental benefits of all the xylitols.

Yes, according to Wikipedia, with xylitol in general, “recent research confirms a plaque-reducing effect and suggests the compound, having some chemical properties similar to sucrose, attracts and then “starves” harmful micro-organisms, allowing the mouth to re-mineralize damaged teeth …. (However, this same effect also interferes with yeast micro-organisms and others, so xylitol is inappropriate for making yeast-based bread.)”

At is this information: “Use of xylitol raises the pH of saliva in the mouth. When pH is above 7, calcium and phosphate salts in saliva start to precipitate into those parts of enamel where they are lacking. For this reason, use of xylitol has demonstrated not only a dramatic reduction in new tooth decay, it also has shown the arrest and even some reversal of existing dental caries."

Bring on the pie!

An addendum, July 4, 2013: Subsequent, to my publishing the article above, a vet friend wrote to tell me that Xylitol will kill a dog, in fairly small amounts. I googled a bit about it and put those thoughts on hold for a while. Recently I looked into it a little more and I decided I don’t want to use this sweetener anymore. It’s an alarmingly complex process, “refining” this “sugar” from birch and coconut trees, and there are reasons to be wary of using this product. Here is the article that set me back on my heels:
Please read it and make your own decision.

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