August 9, 2012

Could This Sugar Prevent Cavities?

I never thought I would be reporting on the benefits of chewing gum, as I have never been a big fan of it.

That said, the research on a common sweetener found in some chewing gum and toothpaste brands is compelling! Not only has this sweetener been shown to prevent dental cavities (caries), it has also been shown to reverse early stage tooth decay (1).

Find out how this incredible sweetener works to help prevent tooth decay in both children and adults.

And, if that isn’t enough, let’s review the latest research showing that chewing gum can improve concentration and attentiveness in kids who chew gum while studying or testing!

Tooth Decay is on the Rise

The facts are in. According to a recent article in the New York Times (March 6, 2012) and the Center for Disease Control, dentists are seeing a significant increase in cavities in children.

The most noteworthy reason for this is sugar. Sugar breeds infectious bacteria called streptococcal mutans. In a mouth full of sugar, streptococcal mutans releases a tooth-dissolving acid that softens the teeth and encourages tooth decay.

While taking sugar out of the diet would be a great solution, it might be unrealistic for many children. Even if parents took away the added sugars from their child’s diet, there is still an incredible amount of hidden sugar in the American diet that would breed streptococcal mutans. (For more info on these hidden sugars, please see my series on pre-diabetes and blood sugar).

This Natural Sweetener in Certain Gums and Toothpastes May Help

There is one natural sugar found in small amounts of many foods like fruit, berries, veggies, corn, and seeds that will not feed the tooth-decaying streptococcal mutans bacteria. It is called xylitol, a naturally-occurring sugar alcohol that I recently reported on in my pre-diabetes series.

Unlike sucrose, or table sugar, xylitol does not feed or cause the proliferation of streptococcal mutans. Thus, the population of these tooth-decaying bacteria plummets. In fact, xylitol actually supports the growth of numerous beneficial bacteria in the mouth that do not cause tooth decay (2).

Nowadays, xylitol is increasing in popularity as the sweetener of choice with many natural chewing gum companies.

In a study performed in Belize, 1,277 children were given time to chew gum each day. One group chewed xylitol gum; another group chewed sugar-sweetened gum, and a third group chewed gum sweetened with sorbitol.

Sorbitol is another sugar alcohol that is commonly found in sugar-free chewing gums. While it has shown some protection against tooth decay, in this study, the sorbitol group only showed a 26 percent reduction in cavities. The group that chewed sugar-sweetened gum had a 120 percent increase in cavities, and the group that chewed xylitol sweetened gum had a 73 percent reduction in cavities (3).

•    Sugar-sweetened gum: 120 percent increase in cavities
•    Sorbitol-sweetened gum: 26 percent reduction in cavities
•    Xylitol-sweetened gum: 73 percent reduction in cavities

What amazed me most about this research was that kids who started chewing gum at age six had an overall 59 percent reduction in cavities and a whopping 93 percent reduction for the new teeth that erupted during the study. If the kids were chewing the xylitol gum one year before the new teeth erupted, and had stopped chewing before those new teeth came in, those new teeth had an 88 percent risk reduction of getting dental caries, leading researchers to believe that this gum may provide long-term, maybe lifelong, protection against tooth decay (4).

Cautionary Note

Xylitol is still a sugar with a sweet taste and should be used cautiously as you would any sugar. While I was not able to source any negative research on xylitol, I have seen sweeteners activate a desire/craving for more sweets and stimulants. I suggest that a xylitol toothpaste or chewing gum be used in moderation—one or possibly two pieces per day.

Bonus Benefit of Chewing

Chewing has been studied thoroughly by the chewing gum industry and has linked chewing to many beneficial effects on the nervous system.

One study at St. Lawrence University showed that students who chewed during tests outperformed non-chewing students in five out of six cognitive tests, due to what they termed “mastication induced arousal.”

Another study from Cardiff University measured increased cortisol production, faster heart rates, and increased attentiveness from chewing. These tests had nothing to do with the sugar or flavor of the gum chewed.

Kids today are encouraged to chew gum during tests to improve concentration as a result of the overwhelming research in this area.

Chewing—Not Only for Gum

In addition, chewing, which we hardly need to do when eating processed foods, has an amazing effect on the digestive process. So eat your vegetables and chew.

To learn more about the benefits of chewing, see my article, “10 New Reasons to Eat Veggies.”

1. Int Dent J. 2008 Feb;58(1):41-50. PMID: 18350853
2  Phytother Res. 2003 Sep;17(8):938-41. PMID: 10916329
3. Nutrition & Healing. Fight Tooth Decay. Vol 19, Issue 3. May 2012
4. Nutrition & Healing. Fight Tooth Decay. Vol 19, Issue 3. May 2012

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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