After years of hearing how bad gum is for your teeth, are you ever surprised to see the ADA recommended chewing gums for sale alongside candy bars while you’re waiting to check out at the grocery store? Chewing gum that contains the sweetener xylitol has been recommended by dental organizations because it presents potential oral health benefits, but research on the subject is ongoing. Here’s what we know so far.
Xylitol: what is it?
Xylitol is a 5-carbon sugar alcohol that is found naturally within the fibers of plants we eat like: fruits, vegetables, berries, and even mushrooms (the xylitol used in chewing gum, however, is produced through a manufacturing process thanks to the magic of chemistry.)
Unlike sucrose, or table sugar, xylitol does not affect insulin levels in the body, which has made it an ideal sweetener for any foods eaten by diabetes patients or other people sensitive to blood sugar levels. Now the scientific community is examining xylitol as a potential dental health tool.
Xylitol’s dental role
Xylitol is being closely examined as a potential partner in dental caries prevention, particularly in children. There are several mechanisms by which the sugar may play a role in oral health.
First, as a sweetener, xylitol is “non-fermentable” which means it cannot be used as a food source for most bacteria– in this case, the bacteria that live in the mouth. Cavities are caused when these oral bacteria consume sugars in our food and create an acidic metabolic byproduct that eats away at dental enamel. Using a sweetener like xylitol, which is unfit for bacterial consumption, starves out the bacteria and greatly reduces the risk of dental caries.
While this is helpful, scientists are also examining xylitols’ potential as an active promoter of dental health. Researchers have found that the sugar may actually hinder bacterial growth and reproduction in the mouth because while it is not a viable food source– the microorganisms still attempt to eat it, putting a wrench into their microscopic metabolism.
In addition, xylitol may increase remineralization of damaged dental enamel due to its effect on enhanced Ca+ transport, increasing the amount of the ion in saliva. Its sweet taste also stimulates salivation in general so that the health benefits of saliva, such as remineralization, pH buffering, and oral cleansing, are ramped up when chewing a xylitol sweetened gum or sucking on mints.
Studies are ongoing when it comes to xylitol’s specific dental health benefits. While there are many promising potentials, dental researchers have not found conclusive evidence that the sugar outweighs such dental health powerhouses as fluoride, but it does appear to play a supporting role in dental health when combined with other health measures such as daily care, fluoride treatments and/or sealants, and regular check-ups.
Currently, researchers recommend xylitol as part of the care approach for patients at a moderate to high risk for dental caries. The ADA lists xylitol-containing chewing gum and mints as a preventative care tool, recommended after a meal to maximize benefits.
Is xylitol a good option for you?
Your dentist in Newberg Oregon, Dr. Jennifer McLeod of Newberg Family Dental, is always available to speak with you about how to maximize your dental health through preventative care– including options like xylitol. Bring your questions with you to your next appointment!