You might remember being sent the Principle’s office if you were caught chewing gum in school.  We were told gum was bad for you because it caused cavities. However, chewing gum produces more saliva, which “washes away” debris and bacteria.

The human mouth is host to many bacteria. The one that is primarily responsible for cavities is called streptococcus mutans (it’s related to the bacteria that causes strep throat). When the bacteria encounters sugar, acids are produced. Saliva neutralizes acid, so teeth can handle some exposure. But large amounts of sugar overwhelm saliva. Prolonged exposure to that acid will damage the protective enamel on teeth and eventually cause cavities.

Chewing gum of any kind increases saliva production, and therefore helps neutralize more acid. But many gums are sweetened with sugar, which  increases the acid levels, effectively canceling out the positive benefits. The problem is fixed by replacing sugar in gum with xylitol, a naturally occurring sweetener found in fruits and vegetables that has fewer calories than regular sugar.

More saliva and less acid seems to cause the teeth to remineralize. But most important, chewing xylitol gum inhibits the growth of the strep bacteria, which are not able to metabolize the sweetener. Less virulent strains of bacteria slip off the teeth, and this positive xylitol effect lasts years.

In the 1980s there was a trial in Finland that found that children who chewed xylitol-sweetened gum had as much as 60 percent fewer cavities compared to children who didn’t. A 1989-93 randomized study of children around age 10 in Belize showed an even greater benefit; chewing xylitol-sweetened gum decreased the risk of cavities by up to 70 percent, and a follow-up study showed that the benefit lasted for up to five years.

Approximately 17 million children in this country do not get basic dental care. More than 50 million hours of school are missed every year because of dental problems. This is an easy, cost effective solution. Like chocolate and coffee, gum is now being rehabilitated. It turns out that sugar-free gum can actually prevent cavities in children.

Dr. Julie Pruneski is the dentist and owner of Whispering Pines Dental located at 690 Cooper Foster Park Road in Lorain, Ohio.  Dr. Pruneski is a current member of the American Dental Association, Ohio Dental Association, Lorain County Dental Society, Academy of General Dentistry, American Academy of Implant Dentistry, and American Academy of Facial Esthetics.  To reserve an appointment with Dr. Pruneski, call 440-282-2023.