Guru Kate: Why do some dentists endorse certain chewing gums?

Illustration by Casey Kleeb
Illustration by Casey Kleeb

Although it hasn’t aired in years, a Trident gum commercial was so iconic that it spurred many people to ask, “Why would four out of five dentists recommend a particular chewing gum?”

It’s because of a sugar alcohol called “xylitol.” Xylitol is a five-carbon sugar with a hydroxyl group attached. It tricks our taste buds into thinking it’s sweet, but its conjuring tricks don’t end there.

The bacteria in your mouth survive on sugar. This fact is the bane of many dentists’ existence. Sipping on soda day after day bathes your teeth in sugar, growing bacteria, which then produce plaque and tartar, lining your teeth with the precursors to cavities. The bacteria have special systems to pump the sugar from your mouth into their cell and process it as energy.

However, when xylitol is introduced, the bacteria get confused. They still see it as a sugar, so they still bring it into their cells. However, during the import process the xylitol is transformed into xylitol phosphate, which is unusable by the bacteria. Transporting materials into the cell takes a lot of energy, and when they get xylitol phosphate at the end, it was all for naught. The bacteria starve and bite the dust.

In addition, by starving out the xylitol-sensitive bacteria, we allow other forms of bacteria within the mouth to thrive. There is good news, however. Recent evidence suggests that the bacteria that aren’t affected by xylitol are not as great at sticking to the teeth or replicating as quickly as xylitol-susceptible bacteria are.

Preventing bacterial growth is only one side of the xylitol advantage. Research has shown that xylitol also has the potential to increase enamel by recruiting calcium ions — an important ingredient in re-mineralizing teeth — and it can increase the pH of saliva. Increasing the pH of saliva leads to a less acidic mouth, and therefore less enamel decay.

Lastly, xylitol is most effective right after meals, which is conveniently when many people chew gum. Check out the ingredients list on your favorite type. You may be pleasantly surprised to find that xylitol is listed instead of glucose, fructose or sucrose, all of which are forms of sugar that would otherwise be bad for teeth.

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