XYLITOL: THE TRUE STORY
CLARIFYING THE QUESTIONS AND CONTROVERSIES
SURROUNDING CORN COB AND BIRCH XYLITOL
During the past year or so, there have been many questions and concerns voiced about the perceived differences between xylitol made from birch bark and/or hardwoods versus xylitol made from other raw materials, principally corn cobs. Certain website distributors of xylitol have, for some time now, been giving misleading and often incorrect information to the consumer, in our opinion. We are presenting this “White Paper” for our website visitors because we think that you should be given the facts that we have collected over the past 10 years so that you can make your own judgment as to whether you should be concerned about some of the information that is out there on the web. We trust that the following information about how xylitol is produced and why these concerns may be unfounded will help you to make a more informed decision about the products you may choose to buy.
Even though xylitol is found in nature in certain fruits and vegetables in small quantities, it must be synthesized from plant matter containing hemicellulose in order to provide sufficient quantities necessary to meet the increasing demand. Several types of raw materials have been investigated over the years and found to be capable of being chemically converted into the same molecular composition as xylitol found in nature. Originally, small quantities were made primarily from the bark of birch trees during the sugar shortages that occurred in some European countries during WWII. After the war, sugar became plentiful again, and xylitol production was limited to that needed for pharmaceutical or special dietary purposes.
When the demand in Asia for a natural sugar substitute increased, the overwhelming choice of a raw material was a renewable source that was available in larger quantities and more economical than tree bark: corn cobs. The lack of a sufficient supply of tree bark and the high cost and complexity of processing it caused China to begin production of xylitol using corn cobs from the regions where corn had been grown by subsistence farmers for many generations. Factories were built in these regions, and they provided additional income for these farmers by purchasing the corn cobs that would have otherwise been discarded as waste. The technology for these factories was made available from Europe and the US.
When demand for xylitol in the US and Canada increased to the point where the supply available from birch and other hardwoods became limited, and costs began to spiral upward, importers began to travel to China to review their processes and work with their government to increase their production and inspection techniques to meet the more stringent US requirements needed for importation and sale of the finished product. As a result, the quality of the imported product was improved to the point that most of the xylitol sold in the US for many years came from China. In addition, the xylitol was also laboratory inspected after arrival in this country to further verify its purity and conformance to US standards prior to being accepted for distribution. Sometime later, a few companies in the US began to produce xylitol using xylan from China, which is the basic material used in the chemical processes used to produce the finished product.
When Internet retail websites for xylitol sales became more prevalent, an advertising “war” developed with certain sites claiming that their xylitol was superior to that made from corn cobs because it was made only from birch bark. However, the price difference was significant, and the birch product was the highest price on the market. As more companies began to sell xylitol, the competition for the customer’s dollar rapidly increased, and “organic xylitol” began to be advertised. In addition, there was a campaign started by one online company in particular that stated emphatically that there were possibilities that any xylitol manufactured from corn or corn cobs could contain allergens that might lead to distress due to corn allergies. As a result, consumers were led to believe that xylitol made from corn cobs was an inferior product and could even lead to health issues. When the company that made these claims was contacted by telephone and asked to provide the source of their xylitol, they refused to give any information at all and indicated that their source was “secret” so that others could not also obtain xylitol from that source. They would not furnish any documentation as to the purity of their product, and stated that one would have to “take them at their word” concerning their claims. This made us very skeptical about their truthfulness, and we began to try to find out more about this as we were about to enter the market with our own website to sell xylitol and xylitol products.
We have had experience personally with both the claimed “birch only” xylitol and that produced in China from corn cobs and imported by trustworthy companies in the US. We have found little difference in any of these products that we have used over the past 10 years, other than some brands had a coarser texture than others. We have never personally suffered from any negative side effects other than occasional gastric discomfort when it was ingested in larger quantities at a time. This is a normal side effect that has been well documented. We have also failed to detect any noticeable difference in the taste of any of the xylitol that is made from corn cobs and that made from “birch only”.
Note that we have stated that the xylitol from China and some from the US is made from corn cobs, not from the corn kernel itself. This is an important distinction, because our research has shown that most food allergies are in response to the protein found in the grain itself.1 Also, when “corn allergy” or “allergic reaction to corn” was researched, no results were obtained when these keywords were entered into the USDA , FDA, The Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network, and The Center for Food Safety websites.1,2,3,4 According to the FDA , the eight major food allergens are: milk, egg, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, wheat, peanuts, and soybeans, or a food ingredient that contains protein derived from one of these2. These major allergens affect only 6% of the child population and 3.7% of the adult population in the US. “More than 160 other foods are known to cause food allergies; however, these allergies are relatively rare with prevalence rates ranging from a few percent of the allergic population to single cases. "Starch….is often derived from corn which is not a major food allergen.” 2 So, in conclusion as regards corn allergies, this type of allergy is not considered significant by the US Government and other sources.
The other concern about corn from many people is the genetically modified organism (GMO) problem. Much has been written and publicized about the dangers, both real and imagined, of genetically modifying corn to increase yields and make it less susceptible to pests. There are basically two reasons that this should not be of any concern to purchasers of xylitol manufactured from corn cobs. The first is that the Chinese farmers not only do not have any need or desire for GMO corn, but rather have been farming in their traditional ways for centuries and do not want to change their methods. This information was provided to us first hand by the owner of one of the largest xylitol importing companies who has personally made many trips to China to inspect their facilities and work with their government regarding the inspection and regulations that are required for importation into the US. The second reason should be obvious to anyone who has researched the methods of production of xylitol from corn cobs. The complex processes necessary to convert the hemicellulose first into xylan, then into D-xylose, and finally into xylitol actually change the chemical composition of the raw material so completely that the end product, which must also be filtered and refined, is of 99.5% or greater purity and has the same 5-carbon molecular structure as the xylitol that is found in nature. By the time this process is completed, there is nothing remaining that bears any resemblance to the original raw material, and all that is present are the pure xylitol crystals. As long as the final inspection, tests, and laboratory verification of the purity of the product are performed rigorously, the consumer can have complete confidence that there are no residual elements from the raw materials present in the final product.
One final concern by consumers appears to be one that has no validity whatsoever. That is, some retailers are stating that their xylitol is “organic” or that the raw materials are organic. It would appear that this is only a marketing strategy or ploy, because it makes no sense that the use of an organic raw material would result in a superior end product if you understand the manufacturing processes briefly described above. Also, we have not seen any advertised xylitol that bears the green FDA label certifying the product as organic.