ALBANY, Ga. -- A natural sweetener used in chewing gum, toothpaste and pharmaceuticals may be pouring out of Georgia pulp mills in a few years.
Two University of Georgia scientists are studying the feasibility of making xylitol, a sweetener with anti-cavity properties, from wood fibers that are a byproduct of paper production.
Xylitol resembles table sugar and is equally sweet, but it has fewer calories. The sweetener sells for about 16 times the price of table sugar.
Finland, the world leader in xylitol production, makes the sweetener from the wood sugars found in birch trees. Scientists are hoping it also can be extracted from hardwood trees in the United States.
"There are no American manufacturers yet, but there's lots of interest," said Jim Kastner, one of two chemical engineers working on the Georgia project. "The United States has a large amount of wood-agriculture residue."
Xylitol is found naturally in various fruits and vegetables, such as raspberries, strawberries and spinach, but the concentrations are too low for commercial extraction to be practical.
Kastner and fellow engineer Mark Eiteman hope to make it from the byproducts of paper production. They are conducting tests on two organisms - yeast and a common bacteria - that convert a wood sugar called xylose into xylitol.
The process is already being tested at one Georgia pulp plant. The scientists are working on genetically altering the yeast and bacteria to produce higher yields.
Tom Jeffries, director of the institute for microbial and biochemical technology at the Department of Agriculture's Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wis., said competing with Finnish xylitol producers will be difficult.
Faulty research linking xylitol to cancer is another obstacle, Jeffries said. Canadian researchers reported that rats who received high doses of xylitol developed cancer, but subsequent research showed the rats had developed kidney stones, not cancer, Jeffries said.
Xylitol is now approved for use in chewing gums, candies, pharmaceuticals and toothpaste.