Report finds that a popular, low-calorie sweetener could increase heart health risks

A recent study linked xylitol, a common low-calorie sugar substitute, to heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular risks.

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A recent study linked xylitol, a common sugar substitute, to heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular risks. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

As more and more people aim to become healthier, low-calorie sweeteners have become a popular replacement for traditional sugar. However, a recent study published in the European Heart Journal found that consuming high levels of xylitol, a popular sugar substitute often used in candy, sugar-free gum, mints, syrup, condiments, and even toothpaste, has been linked to cardiovascular risks. To conduct the study, researchers tested the impacts of xylitol on over 3,000 people in the U.S. and Europe. 

“We gave healthy volunteers a typical drink with xylitol to see how high the levels would get and they went up 1,000-fold,” Dr. Stanley Hazen, the study’s author and director of the Center for Cardiovascular Diagnostics and Prevention at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute told CNN. “When you eat sugar, your glucose level may go up 10% or 20%, but it doesn’t go up 1,000-fold.” 

The research also showed that those who consumed high levels of the sweetener were two times more likely to have a heart attack or stroke and faced a higher risk of death within the next three years compared to participants who consumed low levels of xylitol. Additionally, Dr. Hazen noted that the sweetener even increased the likelihood of cardiac events in those who have no history of heart disease. 

“The whole purpose of this research is to find pathways that contribute to heart disease beyond the traditional risk factors like cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes,” said Hazen, per Time magazine. “And xylitol is one of them.”

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As previously reported by theGrio, heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in women and especially Black women. Similarly, in 2019 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health reported that Black people are 30% more likely to have heart disease and less likely to have their blood pressure under control.  

“It’s killing more women than all forms of cancer combined,” Dr. Leandris Liburd, acting director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office of Health Equity (OHE), told theGrio. “We know that Black women are 60% more likely to have high blood pressure. Black women have higher rates of cardiovascular disease and coronary disease, as well as higher rates of stroke deaths, than when we compare them to their non-Hispanic white counterparts.” 

With organizations like the American Heart Association predicting that at least 60% of adults in America will have heart disease by 2050, scientists have raised concerns about sweeteners like xylitol due to the blood clots they can trigger. Like xylitol, previous research found that erythritol, another low-calorie sugar substitute found in stevia, monkfruit and keto-friendly sweeteners, was linked to cardiovascular risks. 

“Humankind has not experienced levels of xylitol this high except within the last couple of decades when we began ingesting completely contrived and sugar-substituted processed foods,” Hazen added, explaining how more and more companies are replacing cane sugar with the sweetener into their products because of its low price tag. 

Though Carla Saunders, president of the Calorie Control Council, says that this new study is “a disservice to those who rely on alternative sweeteners as a tool to improve their health,” Dr. Hazen hopes that these findings encourage people to be more mindful of their sugar consumptions rather than replace it. In 2023 the World Health Organization encouraged people to avoid sugar substitutes as it called for more research on their long-term effects. 

“I think it is much more prudent to avoid those and be more judicious about the amount of sugar you use,” Hazen told Time. “I am absolutely convinced that sugar alcohols are a risk for cardiovascular disease based on all of the clinical and mechanistic data we are seeing.”