Are you one of those people who dreads dental visits? Many people put off seeing the dentist, sometimes until pain finally forces them to have a cavity drilled and filled.
Cavities dig deep. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 25% of all youngsters between ages two and five show signs of tooth decay; for kids between 12 and 15, that number rises to 50%. It is the most common cause of tooth loss in children.
Sugar is famous for promoting tooth decay by feeding the bacteria that cause it. On the other hand, a natural sweetener called xylitol helps prevent the erosion of tooth enamel that leads to cavity formation.
Each tooth consists of three layers. Enamel, the outermost layer, is the hardest substance in the body but is quite brittle. Under that is dentine, a bony substance that is more elastic than enamel. The innermost layer is the pulp, soft tissue that contains blood and lymph vessels, along with nerves that allow the tooth to sense heat and cold.
Decay starts when a sticky substance called plaque gathers around the teeth and gums, especially in the grooves of the molars and premolars. Plaque contains bacteria that ferment sugar into acid; this acid leaches minerals out of the enamel. Eventually the enamel weakens to the point where the decay extends to the dentine, causing pain.
The best way to prevent cavities (also known as dental caries) is to remove plaque before it can start destroying enamel. Regular brushing and flossing is a must, as is a regular schedule of professional cleanings and checkups so any cavities that do form can be filled while they’re still small.
Plaque’s stickiness is what makes it so problematic. Scientists call it a biofilm, a mixture of bacteria and protein that can be very difficult to remove.
Xylitol, found in various berries, vegetables and mushrooms, helps disrupt plaque because it cannot be digested by tooth-eroding microbes, reducing bacterial growth. Xylitol also makes the mouth less acidic and more alkali, which encourages the enamel to absorb minerals and become stronger.
Reducing plaque helps prevent gingivitis, an inflammation of the gums that can lead to tooth loss.
Research has shown xylitol’s effectiveness. In an Italian study, schoolchildren at high risk for tooth decay who chewed xylitol gum had lower levels of oral bacteria and more alkali saliva (Caries Research 12/09). Scientists in another study gave either xylitol or a placebo to children between the ages of 9 and 15 months in the form of syrup. Fewer youngsters in the xylitol group developed cavities and had fewer decayed teeth (Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 7/09). In a Japanese study, mothers-to-be who chewed xylitol gum from the sixth month of pregnancy until after they gave birth transmitted less mutans streptococci, a variety of bacteria that causes tooth decay, to their babies (Journal of Dental Research 1/10).
Such research findings have led to official endorsements for xylitol. “The evidence is strong enough to support the regular use of xylitol-sweetened gum as a way to prevent caries, and it can be promoted as a public-health preventive measure,” writes the author of a Journal of the American Dental Association article.
“Xylitol has been shown to have decay-preventative properties,” states the California Dental Association on its website.
Chewing gum, mints, toothpaste and mouthwash aren’t the only products in which you’ll find xylitol. The granular form can be used as a sugar substitute. In addition, this healthy sweetener has found a home in chewable supplements for both adults and children, some of which specifically target oral health with ingredients such as probiotics, vitamin D and calcium.
Want a filling-free smile? See the dentist regularly—and let xylitol help protect your teeth between visits.