Deadly Sweet: What’s New On Dog-Toxic Xylitol

Patty Khuly

While on a recent trip to my sister’s place in Lake Tahoe, we stopped at one of the Bay area’s many independent natural food markets. At her suggestion I started reading labels on the sweets and pantry items for sale. My goal was innocent enough: learn to eat less sugar. My findings, however, were far more eye-opening. Xylitol seemed to be in everything!

Many of you know that xylitol is a sugar substitute known to be highly toxic to dogs, but most dog lovers still haven’t heard this fact. (Even if you believe you’re on familiar terms with this not-always-so-common knowledge, you’re still probably not as aware as you think. I certainly wasn’t.)

At this little store alone I counted 31 separate xylitol-containing items. Jams, jellies, salad dressing, mints, gums, toothpaste, candies, cupcakes, and puddings: almost anything you’ve ever seen with a “sugar free” or “low calorie” label might well include some xylitol. That’s especially true if it’s marketed as “natural.”

Slogans like “sugar-free,” “all-natural,” “no artificial sweeteners,” and “We don’t use ingredients made in laboratories!” adorned the labels of these products. Not one mentioned that xylitol should be kept away from dogs. Meanwhile, dogs were spilling out of cars parked just outside the door, on their way to a nearby trailhead after their people had shopped inside.

What’s up with this crazy contradiction? How can people so clearly endeared to their dogs and healthy enough to hike an expert trail then shop for foods that could kill their beloved pets? The answer, of course, is that they have no idea about the dangers. Here’s what most dog owners don’t know:

#1 Xylitol does some serious damage

The most common effect that poisoned dogs experience is a precipitous drop in blood sugar. Seizures, brain damage, and death are not uncommon, as is liver failure that sets in hours or days afterwards.

#2 Even tiny quantities are enough to kill a dog

As little as 500 mg of xylitol can sicken an average-sized dog and actually kill a small one. And since the average stick of xylitol-containing gum contains about 300 mg, the danger is high.

#3 Xylitol is found in an increasing number of drugs and consumer products where you’d never think to look

Dog owners are largely unaware of how many products count xylitol among their list of ingredients. Most people know about gums and mints, but their children’s medication and Jello Chocolate Sugar Free Pudding they might not.

After all, if you have no idea that Starbucks mints contain xylitol you might not be as careful about where you leave your purse. If you don’t know that your low-calorie cupcake is filled with it, you might not think twice about throwing a stale one your dogs’ way—or leaving its box on the counter.

#4 Veterinary awareness is low

In fact, until the Journal of the American Veterinary Association (JAVMA) published a 2006 article demonstrating that tiny doses xylitol can kill via both hypoglycemia and liver failure, veterinarians had been unaware of the severity of the problem.

Even now most veterinarians remain in the dark about xylitol’s prevalence. Unless they scoured the aisles at their local natural foods store recently, they probably wouldn’t know how common it’s become. Nor is it the first thing that comes to most veterinarians’ minds when presented with a seizing dog or one suffering acute liver failure.

#5 “All natural” labeling claims are misleading

Since xylan (the source of xylitol) was originally derived from a tree, it has been deemed natural. The same cannot be said for sweeteners like aspartame and sorbitol, for example. But is xylitol truly natural?

Seeing how xylitol is a sugar alcohol that must be broken down using a heavy metal alloy to extract it from the sugar, I’d argue that it’s a derivative of a natural sugar and not a natural product itself. While the FDA admits that derivatives of natural items can still be called “natural,” that would make high-fructose corn syrup natural too.

Speaking of corn…

#6 Xylitol doesn’t always come from a tree

Turns out xylitol is more closely related to corn than it is to a beautiful birch tree. Ever since food scientists learned how to get xylitol from corn as a byproduct of ethanol production, most xylitol now comes from corn. This makes it way cheaper to manufacture.

Furthermore, since we’re talking about large-scale production of ethanol here, the corn they’re using is unlikely to be either organic or non-GMO as many natural foods shoppers might prefer. That brings us to the following point:

#7 US dietary trends significantly impact the rise of xylitol

Since everyone nowadays seems to want all things low in calories, diabetes-friendly, and with no added sugars as well as being “natural,” it only makes sense that natural grocery stores carry more xylitol products than ever before. In fact, a Whole Foods I went to in Reno had xylitol sweetener packets available in abundance at its coffee bar.

The lower price coupled with an increased demand from an expediently health conscious public neatly explains why we’ve observed an explosion of xylitol products in the American marketplace. It makes for a perfect storm of widening xylitol distribution, growing human consumption, and, along with these, more poisoned dogs.

All of which begs the question: should these products be labeled “Toxic to dogs?”

Though I’d be more than gratified to see warning labels pop up on the side of consumer packaging, I can almost promise you it won’t be happening anytime soon. That’s because most xylitol-using companies aren’t comfortable letting an increasingly pet-minded culture in on their dirty little secret: their products have killed beloved pets.

Still, some companies have learned they’re not keen to experience the public relations hazards that come with canine xylitol toxicity. Take Tic Tacs for example. A former frequent offender due to its mints’ exorbitant amounts of xylitol, the product no longer contains this dangerous ingredient. In fact, these days the company proudly explains that its products are no longer toxic to dogs.

Now, if only more companies went the way of the Tic Tac!

Which brings me to your role:

If you’re worried about companies using xylitol or continuing to do so without labeling their products as toxic to dogs, spread the word among your dog-loving friends. (Tweet or share this article on Facebook!) or contact the FDA. Tell them you want warning labels on all xylitol products and a more honest approach to how “natural” products are labeled.

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