Many of our sugar-free cookies, gums and candies are sweetened with xylitol, a naturally occurring sweetener with less calories and carbohydrates than sugar. Further studies have revealed a positive impact in decreasing bad bacteria in the mouth (thus decreasing cavities) leading to the addition of xylitol to mouthwash and toothpastes as well. With xylitol being added to so many products, the question must be asked: is it safe?
What is Xylitol?
Xylitol is a naturally occurring substance first discovered in 1891 by Emil Fischer, a German chemist. This white powder looks and tastes similar to sugar and has been used as an alternative sweetener since the 1960s, and is widely recognised for helping to reduce cavities and improve dental hygiene. Our bodies produce as much as 15 grams per day and other foods like mushrooms, lettuce, berries and fruits are excellent sources. Commercially, xylitol is derived from birch trees, hardwood trees and other vegetation.
More than 35 countries have approved xylitol for use in oral care products, pharmaceuticals and food. It can be found in gum, hard candies, cough syrup, chewable vitamins for children, mouthwash, toothpaste and chewing gum. The United States has also approved it for use as a food additive. The benefits include reduction in the formation of dental cavities, increased saliva, reduction in the formation plaque, less calories (about one third less) than sugar and a lower reading on the glycemic index (making it useful for diabetics or those on low carb diets).
Is Xylitol Safe?
The FDA confirmed, in 1986, that xylitol is safe for humans. Side effects are a rare occurrence in humans and are generally mild. Exceeding six to eight grams daily as an oral care plan can result in stomach discomfort. Exceeding forty grams per day when used as a sweetener can cause discomfort and diarrhoea. The real dangers of the substance are to our furry friends. Even small amounts can cause liver failure, seizures and death in dogs.
Toxic Effects on Dogs
This sugar substitute which has so many benefits in humans is quickly proving to be very toxic and even fatal for dogs that ingest even a small amount (in gum or sugar-free products). According to the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), within 30 minutes of consuming a small amount of a product sweetened with xylitol, dogs experience rapidly plummeting blood sugar, vomiting, lethargy and can experience difficulty walking or standing.
Severe cases of toxic consumption have presented with seizures, internal hemorrhaging and liver failure. The ASPCA estimates that two or three sticks of gum sweetened with xylitol could be toxic to a twenty pound dog. Fast, aggressive treatment from your vet is essential to effectively reversing the toxic effects and saving your dog. ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center spokeswoman, Dana Farbman, has expressed concern based on the rapid effects of xylitol on a dog's system, warning that the window of opportunity for treatment is small.
If you use products containing xylitol, make sure you keep them well out of reach for your pets. If you suspect that your dog has ingested something that is sweetened with xylitol, call your veterinarian immediately.