Don’t spit that gum out of your mouth

Chewing gum has traditionally gotten a bad rap. It’s not considered proper for adults to chew gum in public, and kids can get into trouble for chewing gum in school. But scientists have long known that chewing gum is actually good for you, especially if it has xylitol.

This is how tooth decay works: everyone’s mouth harbours a type of bacteria called Streptococcus Mutans. When this bacteria comes into contact with sugar, it produces acid. When your tooth enamel is exposed to acid, it erodes and becomes more prone to cavities.

When you chew gum, you produce saliva, which is basic and therefore counters the effect of the acid. Saliva enables your tooth enamel to remineralize, which hardens your teeth and protects them against cavities. Of course, if the chewing gum has sugar, then the sugar negates the beneficial effect of the saliva.

But if the chewing gum has xylitol, a low-calorie, naturally-occurring sweetener, then this problem is solved. Not only does xylitol enable saliva to do its work of neutralizing acid and promoting remineralization, but xylitol also inhibits the growth of the Strep bacteria, which cannot metabolize the sweetener.

Multiple studies have been done showing the beneficial effects of chewing gum with xylitol, but this has not translated into public health policy. A Finnish study conducted in the 1980s found that children who chew xylitol-sweetened gum have 60 percent few cavities than children who don’t. A Belize study, conducted from 1989 to 1993, found that children who chew xylitol-sweetened gum have 70 percent few cavities. Other studies have even suggested that pregnant women who chew xylitol-sweetened gum are less likely to pass the Strep bacteria onto their children, and that xylitol-sweetened gum may reduce ear infections in daycare-aged children by up to 40 percent.

This sounds like a public health policy waiting to happen.

Source: Ezekiel J. Emanuel. “Your Assignment for Today: Chew Gum.” The New York Times. October 20, 2010.

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