Sugar alcohols aren’t new, and I’ve researched them before, but we are seeing to “-ols” more and more – especially in chewing gum. I don’t allow artificial sweeteners in our family at all, and it’s VERY hard to find gum without the worst offenders. Xylitol is perhaps a better choice than some – but we should still be informed.
Did you know xylitol is a sugar alcohol? Do you know if sugar alcohol is natural, safe, ok for kids? Becca has done all the research to answer these questions and help you decide on the best chewing gum for your family — Katie
This post is from KS contributing writer Becca Stallings of The Earthling’s Handbook.
When I was 8 years old, my neighborhood friends and I loved to ride our bicycles to a nearby convenience store and spend our allowance money on candy, chips, and chewing gum. But one day, we saw a scary new sign on the door. (You can see one of those signs here.) It said that some “diet beverages and dietetic foods” contained something called saccharin which “may be hazardous to your health…has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.”
Well, that was disturbing, but we weren’t on a diet! We bought our junk food and went on our merry way.
Just months later, I read in Penny Power (the kids’ magazine Consumer Reports used to publish) that chewing gum with sugar in it is very bad for your teeth: Unlike sugary foods that are soon swallowed, gum is mashed against and between your teeth repeatedly for a long time, pushing sugar into all the nooks and crannies that are difficult to brush so that dental bacteria can feast on the sugar and excrete acid that burns through your tooth enamel, creating cavities.
Seems like I barely had time to think about that information before my dentist found 3 cavities in my teeth! He gave me a pack of sugarless gum and suggested avoiding gum with sugar.
My parents encouraged healthy eating habits but let me make my own choices about what to buy with my allowance. Choosing sugarless gum was the first health decision I ever made and enforced for myself. I set myself a rule of “no more than one piece per month of gum with sugar”–and this was an easy rule to follow, as the flavors and bubble-quality of sugarless gums on the market continued to increase through the 1980s.
A year or so passed before the fateful day when two friends and I were enjoying a new sugarless strawberry bubble gum that tasted so much like real strawberries, I looked for the ingredient list. That’s when I realized for the first time that the gum I felt so virtuous chewing had a warning on the package–the same warning as on the door of the store! I was going to get cancer and diiiiie!!!
My friends calmed me down. One of them pointed out that the pink packets her parents had been dumping into their iced tea every day for years were pure saccharin, yet they didn’t have cancer, and surely I was getting less saccharin from a few pieces of gum per week. The other said, “Laboratory animals means rats, and just because something is bad for rats doesn’t mean it’s bad for people.”
Well, it turns out that she was right about the rats in this case: Further research showed that saccharin does not cause cancer in humans, and the warnings were removed.
Meanwhile, though, I’d tried drinking Diet Pepsi on an empty stomach. Bad trip! It was like the world was simultaneously bright and dark, my mind spinning in a cold empty space, my throat and stomach uncertain about whether I was queasy or hungry. I reasoned that the sweet taste was preparing my body to digest sugar, and then when there was no sugar, naturally that felt weird! What I still don’t understand is how anyone could not feel that!
Whatever the safety of artificial sweeteners, they don’t agree with me. As other low-calorie sweeteners have come on the market over the years, I’ve found that I can’t tolerate any of them in beverages or foods. But when I chew sugarless gum, I’m swallowing the artificial sweetener a little bit at a time, so I don’t react as strongly. Sugarless gum bothers me only if I’m really hungry when I chew it.
I continue to believe that, if you’re going to chew gum, sugarless gum is better for your teeth than sugared gum. I’ve never had any more cavities since those 3 at once when I was 8 years old! The American Dental Association says chewing sugarless gum actually helps to clean your teeth. What makes one sugarless gum better than another?
- Some low-calorie sweeteners are safer than others.
- Xylitol might actually prevent tooth decay.
- Other ingredients in the gum might be good or bad for you, or sustainably or irresponsibly produced.
- You want a pleasant flavor and texture.
- Packaging can keep your gum fresh and make it easy to carry with you–or not.
- Packaging can make a lot of trash or just a little.
- If you like to blow bubbles, some gums are better for that than others.
I never became a really constant gum-chewer, peaking at about 2 pieces per day in high school. But I still like to have gum in my purse for quick breath-freshening, moistening an itchy throat, or just something to do during a long wait. In the past few years, I’ve been buying “natural” brands of gum sweetened with xylitol.
Why Use Xylitol in Gum?
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol, a type of sweetener that is derived from a plant carbohydrate but is lower in absorbable calories than sugar. That doesn’t mean it has no calories at all–the gums my family tried have between 0 and 5 calories per piece, and I expect the one with 0 is rounding down. Sugar alcohols do have some effect on blood glucose, so people with diabetes should be careful with xylitol and other sugar alcohols. (Here’s Katie’s research on sugar alcohols.)
Sugar alcohols, in general, are thought to be safer than some other sweeteners, like aspartame. But I’ve found that my scary reaction to “fake sugar” is triggered just as much by the sugar alcohols sorbitol and mannitol as by aspartame or saccharin. (Stevia might not be as much of a trigger, but it’s hard to tell because I can’t stand the taste!) Xylitol doesn’t bother me, at least not in gum.
I’m finally doing some serious research on xylitol for this article. I had been choosing my gum based on stuff I’d read here and there, but now that my 4-year-old Lydia is asking for a piece of gum nearly every day, I want to look into this more carefully. My references in this section are not food blogs; they are medical research studies.
Disclaimer: I am not a dentist or doctor. My profession is data management for research studies, so I’ve read a lot of scientific papers (and written some) and I know how a research study should be properly conducted. I’ve mostly worked in social science, but I recently worked for a department running clinical drug trials, where I learned more about the process of comparing a new treatment to existing treatments that are already proven effective. I’ve done my best to report accurately on what science has shown about xylitol, especially in chewing gum, but I am not qualified to give official medical advice.
Xylitol gum prevented cavities better than sorbitol gum (also sugarless) and better than no gum at all in this study. Xylitol and sorbitol gums both are better than no gum for gingivitis prevention and tooth remineralization.
Children whose mothers chew xylitol gum regularly have 70% fewer cavities by age 5 than children whose mothers have dental fluoride or chlorhexidine treatments. Xylitol reduces a type of bacteria in mothers’ mouths that is easily transmitted to their kids (by sharing spoons, kissing, etc.) and causes tooth decay.
Children who chew xylitol gum have a 30% lower risk of ear infections and are more likely to recover from an ear infection without antibiotics than those who chew gum with sugar. I just learned this, and I’m really excited about it! Working on a research study following kids with a history of severe ear infections, I learned how much they suffer from the infections themselves and the antibiotic side effects. I entered data on the bacteria found in these kids when they were sick, and Streptococcus pneumoniae (killed by xylitol) is one of the 3 most common.
Although neither of my kids has ever had an ear infection, Lydia attends full-day preschool now and is exposed to lots of germs. I love the idea that chewing gum might help to protect her! Seeing research on xylitol in children reassures me that it’s safe for kids as well as adults.
Here’s another potential use of xylitol gum that had never occurred to me: Patients who chewed xylitol gum after abdominal surgery recovered their digestive function faster than those who didn’t chew gum in this study and faster than those who chewed non-xylitol gum in this study.
This rat study suggests that xylitol may increase in the skin and slow the aging of skin.
Another rat study found that xylitol increases bone density.
Wow, xylitol is looking great! Should we just add it to everything in place of sugar? No, probably not…
Xylitol’s Side Effects
Most of the reported side effects of xylitol are connected to xylitol-sweetened foods, not chewing gum. Still, as my family taste-tested 6 different xylitol gums, chewing several times a day and sometimes a few pieces at once to try blowing bubbles, I was on the lookout for side effects!
My body’s “Where’s the sugar?!?” response was never triggered by xylitol gum. I felt that my metabolism and hunger levels were normal throughout the week of gum testing.
Sugar alcohols are associated with gastrointestinal distress, especially diarrhea and gas, but xylitol is better tolerated than the other sugar alcohols. Healthy adults got diarrhea when they drank more than 20 grams of xylitol per day–a piece of chewing gum has about 1 gram of xylitol. So, maybe don’t chew 20 pieces a day….
This study, comparing digestive symptoms after drinking beverages with 20+ grams of sweetener, found that xylitol caused more trouble than sugar or the sugar alcohol erythritol. (I learned a new word here! “Borborygmi” means tummy rumbling.)
Nobody in my family experienced gastrointestinal distress from chewing xylitol gum. I was the only one who had a little bit of distress–and I was taking doxycycline for a lung infection, so it was more likely a side effect of that!
My conclusion is that the amount of xylitol we’ll get from chewing a few pieces of gum per week will not hurt us, will be good for our teeth, and may even have other benefits–but I still don’t want sugar substitutes of any kind in our foods and drinks. We aren’t diabetic or obese, so I think it’s best to stick with real sugar (or sorghum syrup, honey, or maple syrup) and not too much of it!
Xylitol Chewing Gum Reviews
I bought 6 different brands of xylitol chewing gum to compare. I got mostly peppermint flavor because that’s what we’ve been chewing and because it’s a fairer comparison when products are aiming for the same flavor. However, I couldn’t resist trying the chocolate mint flavor available from Pür! B-Fresh simply doesn’t come in peppermint, so we got spearmint. Also, we’d previously tried peppermint flavor Glee and didn’t really like it, so I bought lemon-lime to give this brand another chance.
All of these gums have a few things in common:
- Each piece is a tablet with a hard exterior–not a soft, thin stick of gum. What I like about this type of gum is that it isn’t individually wrapped, so there’s less garbage involved. However, some of these products are available in a blister-pack, each piece in its own bubble in a sheet of plastic and foil. I bought larger packages to avoid that waste.
- Pieces are relatively small. Most of the Nutrition Facts labels say a “serving” is 2 pieces. You can see in the photo that there is some variation in size between brands; Glee is the smallest, but I’m not sure which is largest because XyliChew is longer while Epic is thicker.
- Flavor fades quickly. All of these have an intense flavor at first, much less after 2 minutes, and very little after 10 minutes. But they work fine for my typical use of gum: I’ve got coffee breath and no time to brush my teeth before work, so I pop a piece of gum into my mouth, chew it while walking 2 1/2 blocks to the bus stop, and spit it into the trash can there.
- They are not designed for bubble-blowing. That doesn’t mean you can’t! An experienced bubble-blower, chewing 2 or 3 pieces together for a few minutes, can blow bubbles well enough to enjoy the exercise.
- No artificial colorings or flavorings.
- Vegetarian and dairy-free. All except Glee Gum are vegan.
They contain similar amounts of xylitol:
- Epic has 1.06g per piece. That may be a little more than the brands with 1g per piece, or it may be just that Epic chose to display more decimal places!
- B-Fresh, Glee, and Pür have 2g in 2 pieces.
- XyliChew has 1g per piece–which should be equal to the above, but I’m giving you the facts exactly as they appear on the labels.
- Spry has 0.72g per piece. That may be significantly less than all the others, or it may be about the decimal places–but it’s clear that Spry contains less xylitol than Epic.
Xylitol is listed as xylitol on some Nutrition Facts labels and “sugar alcohol” or “carbohydrate” on others.
This gum is specific about being made with “Birch Xylitol extracted from sustainable U.S. forests.” That’s good to know because xylitol can be made from a variety of plant materials, including corncobs and sugarcane fiber, which may be genetically modified. XyliChew is Non-GMO Project Certified and free of corn and gluten. It doesn’t say it is soy-free, but it contains sunflower lecithin rather than soy lecithin.
It’s packaged in a jar like vitamins, with a flip-up lid that fits tightly to keep the gum from getting humid and stuck together. I’ve had several jars like this of other brands of gum, and this is a much better way to keep gum fresh than layers of foil-lined paper wrapper!
Although the label doesn’t specify what’s in the “gum base,” XyliChew’s website says it is “composed of resins, waxes, fillers and elastomers, no plastics,” and free of preservatives.
What’s different about this gum is the moister, chewier feeling when you bite into it. The pieces are thicker than any of the others we tried. The gum continues to seem a little smoother and bouncier than others over the course of chewing, and it’s pretty good for bubbles–I can blow little ones even when chewing just one piece.
Epic gum contains soy lecithin. Epic’s website specifies that they use corn xylitol from China but it’s non-GMO. So, if you’re allergic to soy and/or corn, this is not the gum for you.
They don’t say a word about what’s in their “gum base.” Although there are regulations governing which polymers can be used in chewing gum, some of the “food-grade polymers” are synthetic, that is, plastic. This is why most discarded chewing gum doesn’t biodegrade! Do you really want to chew plastic that’s currently thought to be safe enough, or to chew something that might or might not be plastic? You decide.
Other ingredients are natural flavorings, gum arabic, calcium carbonate, and carnauba wax. Epic gum is made in China.
This is the only one of these chewing gums we’d tried before. We had a jar (like XyliChew, Epic, and B Fresh, but with a screw-on lid) and liked it.
I bought a smaller amount to get the kind of package I wanted: a sturdy, resealable container small enough to carry in my purse! This handy flip-top tube is just what I was looking for, and I’ll be able to refill it! It holds 30 pieces. It stays closed very well but is easy to open with one hand.
Spry’s website says its xylitol comes from non-GMO corncobs, its “gum base” comes from the Jelutong tree, its flavor comes from natural peppermint oil, and its soy lecithin is non-GMO. Again, not a safe choice for people with corn or soy allergies. But I appreciate having more detail on the ingredient sources than Epic offers.
Other ingredients are vegetable glycerin, gum arabic, calcium carbonate, and carnauba wax.
Spry’s labeling does not specify where it is made, but it’s my understanding that “a product of” a company with a United States address has to be labeled with its country of origin if the “last substantial transformation” to the product happened outside the USA. (This stuff is complicated! I tried to give up buying imported products for Lent one time….)
Picking the Perfect Peppermint
Here you see XyliChew on the left, Epic in the center, and Spry on the right. I had noticed the difference in size and the chewier texture of Epic mentioned above. To compare flavor, I tried a piece of each on the same day but waited for the flavor of each piece to leave my mouth completely before I tried the next one.
I think XyliChew has the best flavor: less “sharp” than the others yet still giving you a big whiff of sinus-clearing mintiness! Epic and Spry give an initial impression of extreme mint that doesn’t seem very sweet, and then as you chew a bit more you get the sweetness.
All 3 taste about the same after the first minute or so of chewing, so it’s really not a big difference.
Spry and XyliChew are similar in texture. Epic is a little different, bouncier, more like conventional gum.
Every member of my family agreed that this gum is delicious…for about one minute. After that, the chocolate flavor fades, and it’s just mildly minty. But when you’re not looking for extreme freshness, just a change of taste, that’s okay!
The package is a cute little version of the type of zip-top plastic bag often used for dried fruit or frozen foods. It doesn’t stand up by itself well, but it does stay sealed if you repeatedly pick up and put down the package and shuffle it around with others. I didn’t try carrying it in a bag with other stuff. This type of bag is not recyclable.
Pür’s website dropped my jaw by including the question, “Where is the xylitol in Pür sourced from?” but not actually answering that question!! It’s non-GMO, it’s from Europe, and that’s all they’re telling you. They don’t even attempt to address questions about their “gum base.”
Pür products are made in a nut-free, gluten-free factory and do not contain soy. Corn? Unclear.
Other ingredients are natural flavorings, glycerol, carnauba wax, and tocopherols.
Pür gum is made in Switzerland.
This gum is different from the others in that each piece contains the Daily Value (6 micrograms) of Vitamin B12. (The front of the label is citing the Reference Daily Intake, not the Daily Value.) Is that a benefit or a risk? It depends on your overall diet and how much gum you chew!
- All of the foods that naturally contain high levels of B12 are animal foods: seafood, meat, eggs, and dairy. If you follow a vegan diet, or if you avoid some of these foods because of allergies, you might not be getting enough B12, and a supplement could help.
- Vitamin B12 is water-soluble, so if you get too much, it will just come out in your urine instead of causing an overdose.
- My own experience: I needed a supplement to maintain adequate blood levels of B12 when I was pregnant, but it’s not been a problem for me since…I thought. At the time we started testing gum,
- I was feeling nervous but thought it was PMS.
- I was tired and dizzy but thought it was because I was recovering from a lung infection.
- I was eating less dairy than usual because I couldn’t have dairy for two hours before and after taking doxycycline. (I don’t eat much meat. I eat eggs every 2 or 3 days.)
It hadn’t occurred to me to try taking B12. After chewing one piece of B-Fresh each day for two days, I suddenly realized it might be the reason I was feeling so much better!
The label also says, “Excellent Source of Water Soluble Calcium,” but the fine print shows that it contains less than half a milligram of calcium–the Daily Value is 1,000 mg–so don’t skip your beans and greens!
Something about the flavor of B-Fresh gum is a little weird. It’s kind of like the effect of an alcohol-based flavoring extract mixed into a cold food like milk: You taste a bit of the solvent as well as the flavor. However, we thought it was just as “fresh and minty” as the peppermint gums, whereas many other spearmint gums I’ve tried were too sweet and not minty enough.
B-Fresh’s website is unclear about the source of xylitol but says none of the ingredients are derived from corn. The gum is made in a nut-free, soy-free facility and is kosher. The flavoring is natural spearmint oil. B-Fresh is made in the USA.
The pink color of B-Fresh comes from the Vitamin B12. Other ingredients are calcium citrate and calcium gluconate. The website also mentions gum arabic and carnauba wax, not listed on the bottle I have.
The reason I gave this brand a second chance is that it’s one of the few chewing gums on the market that uses a natural gum base instead of synthetic polymer. (I hadn’t yet dug up details on XyliChew and Spry, and as you can see for the other brands, the ingredients of “gum base” are often not explained.) Glee’s website gives more details about their natural gum base.
Unfortunately, we didn’t like the peppermint flavor when we bought it at the food co-op last year. “It’s the wrong kind of sweet,” my son said, “like a medicine or like it’s hiding something.” I didn’t quite agree with that yet couldn’t explain why the gum was so unsatisfying–it just didn’t taste good either at the first bite or after chewing for a while.
Lemon-lime flavor is better. It’s intense at first but not “too spicy” for my 4-year-old. The sweetness is similar to lemonade and has no icky undertones. (I wonder if I accidentally bought the sugar-sweetened version last time? The package design is very similar.)
Then there’s the issue of packaging. Glee Gum comes in a simple cardboard box that’s biodegradable and recyclable. That’s good news for the environment–if you compost the package so that it actually biodegrades, or recycle it, instead of throwing it in a landfill–but it’s bad news for your purse or pocket. Although there’s a little pull-tab to open the box, there’s no slot to tuck it into and no way to hold the box closed. It’s just as well that we didn’t like peppermint Glee because half of it fell into my purse and got covered with lint!
Cardboard packaging also fails to protect the gum from humidity, so you need to use it quickly. As we wrapped up our testing with 5 pieces of Glee remaining, our weather got very humid. I put the box inside a plastic sandwich bag.
Glee’s xylitol is derived from birch and beech trees. The gum is non-GMO certified, kosher, and made in the USA. It does not contain corn or soy but is processed in a facility with soy.
Glee is the only gum we tried that is not vegan–it contains beeswax. The coloring is beta-carotene. Other ingredients are gum arabic, glycerin, natural flavors, sunflower lecithin, resinous glaze, carnauba wax, and citric acid.
Katie’s got a quick tip for us on another gum with natural gum base that her family tried:
Yikes! That’s good to know. We didn’t notice that any of the gums we tried was unusually sticky. Lydia hasn’t done much playing with her gum so far, but that’s just the kind of thing she might do suddenly when we’re not looking! Speaking of which…
Keep Xylitol Out of Reach of Children and Pets
It would be difficult for a child to chew enough gum to ingest a dangerous amount of xylitol. But when Lydia wandered into the room where I’d left our gum on my desk, and I found her helping herself to 3 pieces of Glee at once, I realized that I should put it away! Chewing gum is a choking hazard for young children, and Lydia’s just recently learned the rules for chewing gum, so we want to supervise her just in case she makes a sudden movement and the gum slides down her throat.
Xylitol triggers hypoglycemia in dogs, which can be fatal. Research suggests it may harm other non-primate species, too. Don’t let your pets get into your gum!