Xylitol is effective in preventing and combating tooth decay because instead of promoting the growth of bacteria like other sweeteners, it reduces it. It also changes the amount of saliva and acidity to help keep the teeth and mouth cleaner. The bacterium that is reduced includes cavity-causing bacteria (“strep mutans”), which can be virtually eliminated with less than 15 grams of xylitol a day. This can be achieved with at least three pieces of xylitol treats each day, as well as implementing xylitol-enriched fruits (like plums and raspberries) into a daily diet. Xylitol products are also available in oral hygiene products like toothpaste, mouthwash, and floss and certain chewing gums.
Clinical studies show that supplementing a normal diet with regular consumption of xylitol (xylitol chewing gum 2 times a day) is beneficial for teeth. Research clearly established that the use of xylitol sweetened foods provides additional help in the battle against tooth decay by significantly decreasing plaque accumulation.
When carbohydrates (sugars) are consumed, acid is produced in the mouth and the pH drops potential cavities and the erosion of tooth enamel. Since xylitol is not a food source to oral bacteria, no acid is produced. This means that xylitol reduces the quantity of plaque, creating additional protection from decay (caries) between periods of brushing and flossing. It also inhibits the growth of the main “strep mutans”, bacteria associated with tooth decay. Xylitol also makes plaque less likely to stick to the tooth surface. When xylitol is consumed habitually for several months, the bacteria are shed from plaque to the saliva. Although high numbers may still be found in saliva, they are less harmful and do not adhere as tightly to the teeth – this means the acid attack is not occurring at the tooth surface.
If there’s one thing that all dentists have in common, it’s that they regularly see young patients with tooth decay. Roughly 42 percent of children ages 2 to 11 have had decay in their primary teeth, while approximately 32 percent of children ages 9 to 11 have decay in their permanent teeth. Although it’s vital for all patients to brush and floss every day, children in particular can improve their oral health by adding xylitol to their daily oral hygiene routine, according to an article published in the July 2010 issue of AGD Impact, the monthly newsmagazine of the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD).
“Sugary foods and sticky candies can be difficult for children to resist, but they are a serious source of tooth decay, particularly when they get stuck in the crevices between teeth,” says Scott Cayouette, DMD, FAGD, spokesperson for the AGD. “Additionally, many children consume large amounts of soft drinks and sports drinks, which are known to have a high acidic pH and sugar content – a recipe for disaster in terms of tooth decay.” These dietary factors, combined with the possibility that children are drinking more unfluoridated tap or bottled water, might explain why the rates of tooth decay are rising.
Xylitol gives dentists another weapon in the battle against tooth decay. Xylitol is a sugar alcohol found naturally in trees, fruits, and vegetables. It’s also found naturally in the human liver, which is why it is safe for humans to consume. Unlike table sugar, which breaks down in the mouth and creates an acidic, cavity-promoting pH, xylitol does not break down and therefore does not create any harmful acids. Xylitol can be found in an array of products including candies, mints, lemonade mixes, all-purpose sweeteners, and certain brands of chewing gum, which can help patients fight cavities without forcing them to drastically change their daily oral hygiene regimen. Research suggests that patients should consume between six and ten grams, or three to five servings, of xylitol per day. It’s also important for patients to consume xylitol throughout the day and not all at once. The more often that xylitol interacts with the bacteria in your mouth, the better. That way, it’s always fighting cavities.
While there is no quick fix for eliminating tooth decay, xylitol may offer a realistic way to counteract the problem, especially among the most vulnerable populations. Parents may wonder why a dentist would recommend that their young patients consume a sugar-like substance, but with more education, they will realize that xylitol is a natural product that can help to prevent cavities.
Research suggests that xylitol and fluoride act synergistically to a better result in oral hygiene. Fluoride reduces erosion of the tooth surface and helps to promote the strengthening of enamel. When fluoride and xylitol are combined in products such as toothpaste, the two together are complementary. Those at high risk would be those who have exposed root surfaces (recession from periodontal disease), those who suffer from dry mouth, oral cancer survivors, those with diabetes, or anyone suffering from a compromised immune system. These groups of people are at higher risk of caries (decay). By sucking on xylitol candy or xylitol gum, rather than other sugar-filled products, their risk of decay will decrease.
The sweetness and pleasant cooling effect of xylitol-sweetened products (such as mints and chewing gum) create an increase in the flow of saliva, which helps rinse away excess sugar and neutralize acids. Saliva helps with cleaning and protecting teeth from decay. Xylitol also raises the pH of saliva so it changes both the quantity and the quality of saliva, thus aiding the process of re-mineralizing the teeth.