It turns out that gum without sugar can actually prevent cavities in children. Instead of banning it, we should ask the boys to chew it at school, to promote the health of their teeth.
The mouth of human beings is a refuge for many bacteria. The main cause of caries is called streptococcus mutants (and is related to the bacteria that cause pharyngitis).
When bacteria find sugar, it produces acids. Saliva neutralizes acid, and that is why teeth can handle a certain degree of exposure.
But large amounts of sugar – such as that present in sweets or sugary drinks – overflow into saliva. A prolonged exposure to that acid damages the protective enamel of the teeth – a process called demineralization – and this eventually causes cavities.
Chewing gum of any type increases the production of saliva, and therefore helps neutralize a greater amount of acids. But many chewing gums are sweetened with sugar, something that already increases the levels of acid, effectively canceling the positive benefits.
This problem is solved by replacing the sugar in chewing gum with xylitol, a natural sweetener that is present in fruits and vegetables and has fewer calories than ordinary sugar.
More saliva and less acid seems to cause the teeth to be demineralized – that is, some cavities are reversed. But the most important thing is that chewing gum xylitol inhibits the growth of streptococcus bacteria, which cannot metabolize the sweetener.
Strains of less virulent bacteria disappear from the teeth, and this positive effect of xylitol lasts for years. The chewing gum seems to work best when it is chewed routinely just before the children get their adult teeth, between 5 and 6 years.
We have known all this for a long time, surprisingly. In the 1980s, a high-quality randomized trial in Finland found that boys who chewed gum sweetened with xylitol had 60 percent less tooth decay than those who did not.
Another study that was done with 10-year-old boys in Belize, between 1989 and 1993, showed an even greater benefit. It was found that the habit of chewing gum sweetened with xylitol decreased up to 70 percent the risk of cavities while a follow-up study showed that this benefit lasted up to five years.
Other less definitive studies suggest more positive effects that are worth mentioning. Since streptococcal bacteria are passed from mother to newborn, women who chew gum with xylitol are less likely to transmit these bacteria to their children and cavities in these children are reduced by up to 70 percent.
Studies carried out in Finnish nurseries indicate that chewing gum with xylitol also reduces infections in children’s ears by up to 40 percent.
But why have not measures been taken based on this information? The United States Army Public Health Command recommends soldiers and their families chew gum sweetened with xylitol.
But only schools have the power to make this recommendation a reality, a stage in the lives of children where this really matters in the development of the teeth. School administrators may not know the information.
There is no doubt that after a century of gum crushed and stuck to the foot of the desks, it must be difficult for them to start seeing chewing gum as a virtue instead of as a vice. But they need to change their minds now.
About 17 million American children do not receive basic dental care. More than 50 million class hours are lost due to dental problems, not to mention those lost due to ear infections. This is a simple and inexpensive solution.
But the best way to make sure that all the kids take advantage of xylitol chewing gum is to chew them at school, from kindergarten onwards.
Ideally, chew them three to five times a day, for five minutes each time. This will not only improve your health and your attendance to classes but it is something that you will like, in addition.