Xylitol label
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?

Packaging Should Include Warnings

Then there’s the “all-natural” claim to quibble with. I feel assured that lots of Whole Foods shoppers would have qualms about xylitol’s “natural” claims — more so given that xylitol is derived from corn as a byproduct of ethanol production.

That effectively means that much of the xylitol on store shelves is as all-natural as high-fructose corn syrup. It also means the xylitol in that jar of preserves was potentially sourced from the same industrially farmed, GMO corn many consumers would never buy if they knew what they were supporting with their purchase.

In any case, that xylitol kills dogs is injury enough for me. And given the fact that it’s tough to know which products dog owners should be careful with, conscientious companies should offer labels that explain that their products are unsafe for dogs. (As far as I know, dog safety warnings aren’t included on any consumer product packaging. If you know of one, please inform me.)

Stand Up for Dogs

So are you feeling injured and insulted, too? Here’s a checklist of ways to get involved in the fight to make the world safer for our dogs.

1. Spread the word about the dangers of xylitol among your dog-loving friends. (Share this article on Facebook or Twitter!)
2. Read labels.
3. Don’t buy products containing xylitol unless you’re certain you can keep them from your dogs.
4. Always let all family members know if a household item contains xylitol.
5. When you spy products that include xylitol and don’t offer warning labels, let the parent companies know how you feel about that. (Call or email them.)
6. Contact the Food and Drug Administration to ask for warning labels on all xylitol products.
7. And for all you dog advocates with some time on your hands and a willingness to make a difference in dogs’ lives, here are resources that provide lists of the drugs and consumer products that include xylitol:

Make your voice heard; it could save a dog’s life.