Xylitol sounds like a nuclear bunion buster. It is, in fact, a sweetener derived from the birch tree and often referred to as birch sugar.
The world’s best restaurant, Noma, serves fresh birch sap every spring in place of table water. Yep. It’s quite trippy – cold, honeyed and unfamiliar. Noma has managed to make birch trees hip, not hippie.
Birch sugar is now widely available in health food stores and savvy delicatessens. It’s neon white and powdery. I’m not convinced the processing is ‘natural’, but this hasn’t stopped its roaring rise. The sugar is mainly made by boiling birch sap until viscous and adding several chemicals to help the process along. Judging by the brands available in our stores, my eyebrows note that some are industrially synthesised in labs using corn instead of birch, and shaky about their origin. Watch out for piracy too. Newfangled fads attract trouble like a pedigree Chihuahua in heat.
Children’s confectionery brands are also turning towards xylitol. There is some noise about the reduction of bacterial growth in the mouth after consumption of xylitol, relative to cane sugar. The idea, then, is that xylitol may help reduce cavities (but so too would reducing our fizzy cola supply or remembering to scrub our nashers more often). I’m keeping an open mind, given its popularity among diabetics and health bloggers. But it aint sharing a shelf with my maple syrup.
In theory, white sugar and xylitol can be interchanged without mathematical gymnastics. Good news for diabetics. In practice, it’s a total diva. Xylitol can make a cake surprisingly crumbly like the bottom of a box of Rice Krispies. If you fancy yourself as a culinary MacGyver, you’ll love the challenge of whipping it into submission. If not, here’s a stonking good recipe to get you started.
Trouser trumpets (that’s D4 for flatulence) are often associated with excessive consumption of xylitol, so watch out. Many love xylitol, and sales figures demonstrate this. It’s important to make up your own mind about it.
Cacao Nib & Birch Sugar Granola
This is a stunning recipe. but especially for the candida warriors and diabetics among us. Will make 25 portions.
(I use British cups, 1 cup=250ml)
100g / under ½ cup birch xylitol
1 tablespoon cinnamon
250ml / 1 cup melted coconut oil
180g / 2 cups (gluten free) oat flakes
110g / 1 cup quinoa flakes (or more oat flakes)
½ teaspoon sea salt flakes
70g / ½ cup sunflower & pumpkin seeds
220g / 2 cups nuts
3 egg whites, whipped (optional, to make clusters)
6 tablespoons raw cacao nibs
6 tablespoons goji berries
6 tablespoons desiccated coconut
Fire up your oven to 170 degrees Celsius, 150 fan-assisted. Line 2 roasting trays with good parchment paper such as If You Care Parchment, available online or from savvy delicatessens. Relative to other parchments, this one is The Snazz.
If your xylitol is rather grainy, you’ll need to whizz it in a coffee grinder or high-speed blender until it looks more like fairy dust. Then scoop into a large saucepan with the cinnamon and coconut oil. Let them relax together on a low heat for 3-5 minutes.
Once melted, add the oats and quinoa flakes. Parachute some sea salt flakes from a height, a scattering of seeds, and 2 cups of your favourite nuts freshly chopped. We love hazelnuts and pecans for this recipe.
Whisk the egg whites, if using, until soft and droopy. They don’t need to stand in stiff peaks. Fold into granola mix. I don’t always do this – depends on my mood. Egg whites help to make soft clusters in the granola, but if you prefer it dead crunchy, leave this step out.
Spread the granola over your pre-lined trays. Roast for 18-22 minutes, paying attention not to let the oats turn brown and bitter.
Leave to cool entirely before add the goji berries, cacao nibs and coconut. They tend to burn in the oven, and best left until last.
Store in a massive Ikea glass jar, and your sleepy taste buds will back flip every morning when you catch sight of the jar.
Featured in The Sunday Independent, September 21 2014