One Veterinarian’s Not-so-sweet Take on Xylitol Labeling

Xylitol label
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Last month I visited my sister in California. In San Francisco, we walked into one of those fancy natural food stores that are so plentiful out there. While waiting for my sister to select her items, I read labels. More than 30(!) products I checked out contained xylitol.

Everyone knows xylitol is toxic to dogs, right? It’s so toxic that I could scarcely believe how many products included it on the list of ingredients. One maker of jams and preserves went so far as to offer this homage to xylitol on its label:

X brand sugar-free raspberry preserves are a great-tasting, healthful blend of raspberries and the natural sweetener xylitol. Xylitol is a five-carbon sugar alcohol that is ideal for diabetics and those concerned about sugar intake. Unlike sugar, xylitol has a very low glycemic index, has fewer calories and is beneficial for your teeth.”

Trouble is, it kills dogs. But that bit somehow got left out.

A Small Amount Can Be Deadly

The Bay Area is one of my favorite destinations. It’s a place where the natural beauty alone earns my vote, but it’s the food culture that’s historically been the draw for me.

In recent years, however, I’ve realized that the area’s pro-pet attitude matters more than my farm-to-table appetites. Which is why I was surprised to see two of my favorite things about this part of California — pets and food politics — collide so spectacularly.

Xylitol is more lethal to dogs than any other consumer product ingredient I can think of. Only 500 milligrams can kill a 10-pound dog. A veterinarian with the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center estimates that a single piece of sugar-free gum contains 300 milligrams of xylitol. At that rate, if the pack of gum my Slumdog got into last year had contained xylitol, it would have been enough to kill two average-size Labradors.

Healthy for All Family Members?

How could the increasingly common use of xylitol and the adoration of dogs coexist in such close proximity? How could one of the foodiest, healthiest and dog lovingest places in the world offer such a jarring contradiction?

The answer comes in a cultural leaning toward items that are “natural,” “unprocessed” and “real.” The Bay Area’s starring role in the natural food and farm-to-table movements makes it a magnet for such products. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is clamoring for more “sugar-free,” “low calorie” and “low-glycemic index” foods, too.

Given that trend, it makes sense that consumer product manufacturers would include ingredients that help them meet those standards. But as a veterinarian, I find corporations' willingness to include xylitol in their products without including warning labels indefensibly irresponsible and morally reprehensible. How can they not tell consumers that something intended to make their families healthier can be lethal to one or more of its members?

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