You hear it all the time: If you can’t brush your teeth, chew some sugarless gum. And these days, the advice often mentions xylitol-sweetened gum in particular. Because this sugar alcohol is believed to combat tooth decay, there are those who tout it as a kind of dental wonder, almost magic in its ability to provide sweetness and protect the teeth. (We call this kind of substance anti-cariogenic, “caries” being the clinical term for cavities.)
Does the research to back this up? Not entirely.
The latest study, published in the International Journal of Dental Hygiene, looked at the effect of sugar-free chewing gum on gingival bleeding and plaque scores. Participants were divided into four groups: no gum, base gum, xylitol gum and maltiol gum. Maltiol is another sugar alcohol, but one that’s not known to prevent decay.
The result? Both sugarless gums made a big difference – but only in the absence of tooth brushing. When the teeth were regularly brushed, the gum had little extra effect.
Some have suggested that the gum may work through the simple mechanical action of chewing, ridding the teeth of debris that oral pathogens would otherwise feast on.
But more than this, chewing gum stimulates the flow of saliva – as may the taste of sweetness, as well. It may be kind of gross to think about, but your saliva plays a number of key roles in keeping your mouth healthy. For one, it bathes the teeth, helping flush food particles from the enamel. It helps neutralize acids. Above all, it’s a source of calcium and phosphate that help strengthen teeth.
Because of all this, chewing any kind of sugarless gum may do in a pinch, such as when you’re out and about, with no opportunity to brush. Still, we recommend that if you do chew gum, you opt for brands sweetened with xylitol and avoid the more heinous artificial sweeteners.
We also recommend you make gum chewing a sometimes thing only.
After all, every time you bite, you put your teeth and jaws under many, many pounds of pressure. Chronic, constant chewing may contribute to the intense face, head, neck and shoulder pain associated with TMJ dysfunction. (“TMJ” stands for temporomandibular joint. You have two of them: one on each side of your head. They’re basically the hinge that lets your mouth open and close.)
Additionally, acidic flavorings and other ingredients – even in sugarless gum – may raise your risk of tooth erosion.
And if you have “silver” amalgam fillings, you should avoid gum altogether. Every chew increases the amount of mercury vapor released from each filling.
Image by Amy Messere, via Flickr