Teflon Teeth: Can A Sugar Actually Help Decrease Cavities?

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As everybody knows, sugar is the arch-nemesis of the dentist.  Think Spiderman vs. Green Goblin, Batman vs. Joker, Mr. Krabs vs. Sheldon Plankton (for you SpongeBob fans!).

Well, think again!  There is a tooth-friendly sugar out there in the universe that actually helps decrease the incidence of dental cavities.  That sugar is xylitol, a naturally-occurring sugar alcohol that can be extracted from the fibers of berries, oats, corn husks, sugar cane, and other plant material.

Xylitol was first discovered and popularized in Europe in the 19th century, as a safe sweetener for people with diabetes that would not impact insulin levels.  In the ‘70’s, Finnish scientists found that xylitol also had significant dental benefits, and it’s now used around the world, mainly as a sweetener in chewing gum and medicated lozenges.

The mechanism of action of this friendly sugar is as follows:  Streptococcus mutans, the bacteria most responsible for tooth decay, loves to eat sucrose—simple table sugar—and is also very good at breaking down more complex sugars (carbohydrates) into sucrose.  It is the acidic waste products of this bacterial feast that result in the demineralization of tooth enamel, which then creates a cavity in the tooth.

BUT, s. mutans can’t digest xylitol well—it’s essentially starved by it—so as bacterial activity is decreased, the incidence of dental cavities falls as well.  It’s the bacterial version of eating rice cakes all day.  The downside is that you basically have to chew a pack of gum a day in order to get the beneficial effect—most studies suggest that at least 6 grams of xylitol are needed.  However, every little bit helps, right? 

Check the back of the packet of your favorite sugar-free gum.  If xylitol is listed there, you’re in business.  A popular brand is Trident, but there are other xylitol gums at your supermarket or pharmacy—Spry is one that is readily available; just check the dental section. 

So, there’s something to chew over for a while…!