During the holiday season–spanning Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the December holidays–most of us worry about our consumption of sugary candy and desserts.
We should worry. Sugar not only adds calories but it also can lead to other health problems. For one thing, sugar clearly leads to problems with our teeth. It’s well established that the bacteria in our mouths combines with sugar to create an acid that causes tooth decay.
There’s a useful remedy for the tooth problem. No, not the one that immediately comes to mind.
Sure, you can brush your teeth right after consuming sugar-loaded food and drink. But how many of us do it?
Until something else comes along (and it inevitably will, thanks to researchers like the ones I noted in my blog post “Beavers? Seriously?” last March), here’s one thing you can try: chewing sugar-free gum.
In October, The Wall Street Journal highlighted how chewing gum can help reduce tooth decay. It quoted a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association–a family dentist in Fremont, California, Dr. Ruchi Sahota–on the virtues of sugar-free gum. According to Dr. Sahota, chewing gum after eating stimulates saliva, and that can prevent cavities.
Why? Naturally occurring saliva helps to neutralize the mouth by reducing the acids produced by bacteria in food, and those acids are what ultimately cause cavities. Chewing sugar-free gum can reduce the amount of the bacteria-happy acid. In 2007, the ADA began including chewing gum in its Seal of Approval program. But only sugarless gums can qualify (other gums contain the kinds of sugars used as food by bacteria).
Sugar-free gums typically use artificial sweeteners, most of which are created in a lab, and there’s been some discussion of whether they are safe. But concerns about their being carcinogenic have been dismissed by the FDA for lack of clear evidence.
Some dentists promote chewing gum sweetened with xylitol, a sugar alcohol that usually derives from wood fiber. Studies have shown that it adds mineral to tooth enamel, and one study showed that it can inhibit the growth of bacteria that stick to teeth.
But recent analysis concluded that there was insufficient evidence that xylitol can help prevent cavities. So Dr. Sahota told the Journal that the research “isn’t conclusive enough” to promote gums with xylitol over other sugar-free gums.
Although some dentists recommend chewing sugarless gum for at least 20 minutes to get the full anti-bacterial effect, Dr. Sahota disagrees. She advises moderation, cautioning people “not to overchew,” which can be hard on the jaw and tooth enamel.
Regarding candy, Dr. S. recommends avoiding sticky or hard candies because they’re the worst cavity-causing villains. Chocolate is much better for your teeth because it washes away more easily than other candies. Yay, chocolate!
As an inveterate gum-chewer, I’m happy to learn that all those sticks of sugar-free gum I chew can help me avoid tooth decay.
But “candy is candy.” So although chewing gum may help forestall the worst effects of coating our teeth with sugar, we need to remember that a toothbrush will do an even better job of scouring all that sugar off our teeth.
Enjoy those sugary holiday treats. But don’t forget to keep some sugar-free gum handy to pop in your mouth when you’re done. Even rinsing your mouth with water ought to help. And at bedtime, if not before, head for your trusty Sonicare or Oral-B.
Once your teeth are properly scoured, you can drift off to sleep, those visions of sugar plums dancing in your head.