History of xylitol

There’s no doubt Finland is the home of xylitol. Xylitol mints, gum and sweets can be found everywhere and you’d be hard pushed to find someone who didn’t know they were good for teeth. Here’s how that came to be…

Bowl of xylitol

Xylitol can be found in most living things and birch trees are one of the best sources of xylitol as they’re naturally very rich in xylose. 65% of Finland is covered in Forest, most of this birch, and this meant that in the early 1900s, when xylitol was first being made, it came from Finnish birch trees.

During World War II, Finland suffered a major sugar shortage and with their large birch forests, they turned to xylitol as an alternative. While scientists weren’t yet aware of the dental benefits, they did know that xylitol was a great sugar-alternative for diabetics because it’s insulin-independent (the body doesn’t need insulin to metabolise xylitol).

University of Turko

In the early 1970s, Finnish researchers made a hugely important breakthrough. At the University of Turku they discovered that xylitol could also affect the bacteria in the mouth that caused decay. Several studies followed at Turku which showed that xylitol could indeed reduce cavities. Chewing gum was identified as the perfect way to get people to eat xylitol and in 1975, the world’s first xylitol chewing gum was launched in Finland.

This coincided with something else very significant in Finland. In 1972 the Law on Public Health came into effect and the focus for oral care switched to preventative care. This was progressive policy making, way ahead of its time. 40 years later, the UK is still trying to move away from its “drill and fill” culture (where you see a dental professional to repair damage) to a preventative model (where you see them to get help and advice to keep teeth healthy and avoid damage in the first place).

The fact that xylitol is such a useful tool for preventative dentistry (as it kills the bacteria which cause plaque and decay), meant that Finland further embraced xylitol with xylitol sweets, mints and chewing gum becoming very widely used.

Nowadays, not only do Finnish adults consume large quantities of xylitol products but around 90% of Finnish kindergartens offer xylitol sweets to all children on a daily basis. This means that school kids are getting into healthy dental habits from a very early age.

Unsurprisingly the rest of the world has started to follow the Finns in this progressive approach to dental health.  Xylitol and in particular 100% xylitol mints and gum are increasingly popular throughout Europe, North America, Asia (especially in Japan), Australia and South Africa.

The UK has been a bit slower off the mark but at Peppersmith we’re doing everything we can to spread the word about the benefits of xylitol and its role in preventative dental care.

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