Gum-chewers have a reason to smile

In the 1980s, artificial sweeteners in blue and pink packets, diet soda and sugar-free gum set the standard as "healthy" alternatives to their sugar-laden parent products. Today, there's another low-calorie sweetener called "xylitol". It has a sweet-as-sugar taste, and studies show that it may help reduce and prevent cavities.

A natural sweetener found in plants and fruits, xylitol was approved as a food additive by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1986 and is now appearing in sugar-free gum, mints and toothpaste. It is equal in sweetness and volume to sugar, and the granular form can be used in many of the ways that sugar is used, including to sweeten cereals and hot beverages and for baking (except when sugar is needed for yeast to rise).

How xylitol works

Xylitol has been shown to have decay-preventive qualities, especially for people at moderate to high risk for decay when used as part of an overall strategy for decay reduction that also includes a healthy diet and good oral care.

Research indicates that xylitol most likely inhibits the growth of Streptococcus mutans, the oral bacteria that causes cavities, according to Allen Otsuka, PhD, author of a study in the July/August 2002 issue of General Dentistry, the clinical, peer-reviewed publication of the Academy of General Dentistry.

Cavities form when plaque – consisting of oral bacteria – builds up on the teeth and eats into the outer enamel. In the presence of xylitol, bacteria lose the ability to adhere to the tooth, stunting the cavity-causing process. With xylitol use over a period of time, the quality of the bacteria in the mouth changes and fewer decay-causing bacteria survive on tooth surfaces. As a result, less plaque forms on the teeth and the level of acids attacking the tooth surface is lowered.

Products containing xylitol

Xylitol is found most often in chewing gum and mints. You should look at the list of ingredients to know if a product contains xylitol. Generally, for the amount of xylitol to be at decay-preventing levels, it must be listed as the first ingredient. Health food stores can be a good resource for products containing xylitol. Additionally, several companies provide xylitol products for distribution over the Internet.

When to use xylitol

Experts recommend using a xylitol product immediately after meals and snacks to help reduce plaque, inhibit adhesion of bacteria to the teeth and reduce contact time of sugars on teeth. Because duration of exposure is important, gum should be chewed for approximately 5 minutes and mints should be allowed to dissolve. For best results, follow the instructions on the package for each xylitol product you use.

Gum-Chewers Have Reason to Smile. Academy of General Dentistry. The Decay-Preventive Sweetener. California Dental Association.
Last updated: July 2008

The oral health information on this web site is intended for educational purposes only. You should always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.

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