Vail Daily column: A sweetener that prevents tooth decay
July 19, 2010
VAIL, Colorado – Xylitol is a naturally occurring sweetener that is produced by the human body, found in many fibrous fruits and vegetables and commercially grown in the birch tree. It was originally discovered in 1891 by a German chemist and then rediscovered after World War II when Finland was faced with a cane sugar shortage. The FDA approved its use as a sweetener in 1963 and at least 35 other countries have done the same.
The FDA also allows these products to carry the label: “Does not promote tooth decay.” However, the excitement over xylitol is more about its unique ability to prevent tooth decay. Today it is common to find xylitol in many products like chewing gum, toothpaste, mouthwash, hard candy and sweets approved for consumption by diabetics. While they look, feel and taste of pretty much the same, the similarities between sugar and xylitol end there.
Xylitol has 40 percent fewer calories and 75 percent less carbohydrates than sugar. Unlike other sugars and artificial sweeteners, xylitol is a five-carbon polyol, which means it is not metabolized nor does it interact with bacteria. This is especially true of the primary decay causing bacteria, streptococcus mutans. Normally when sugars are consumed they react with the bacteria present in the plaque and produce an acid. This drops the pH of the mouth to an acidic state with a pH below 5.7. It is this acid that attacks the enamel and eventually eats a hole through the hard enamel shell of the tooth resulting in a cavity.
In addition to strep mutans being unable to metabolize xylitol, many research projects over the last 20 years have shown that with repeated use of xylitol the bacteria is completely removed from the dental plaque. This means the dental plaque becomes less virulent and its ability to cause tooth decay is greatly weakened. In order to see this result, xylitol must be consumed regularly over several months time. While the strep mutans will still be present in the saliva, they will be pretty much 100 percent removed from the dental plaque or film that is attached to the tooth surface and unable to initiate the acid attack on the tooth.
There are many possible sources to obtain a clinically significant quantity of xylitol on a daily basis, but chewing gum remains the most common. It is suggested that ideal dosage be between 4-12 grams/day. In order to acquire this amount you would need to chew xylitol gum 3-5 times a day, ideally for five minutes after a meal. This helps bring the pH back to an acceptable level quickly after eating when the teeth are most vulnerable to being attacked. Look for products with xylitol as the only sweetener and preferably listed in the first three ingredients in order to have the ideal amount per serving.
While the consumption of xylitol has been shown to reduce decay by more than 60 percent it is important to understand that there is no so called “silver bullet” in the fight against tooth decay. Studies have confirmed that while decay rates are significantly reduced, they are not eliminated. Therefore, proper diet, oral hygiene and regular professional check-ups are still very much necessary.
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Xylitol is a safe and natural alternative to sugar that does not posses the negative side effects, which are such a concern with artificial sweeteners. This fact along with its uncanny ability to prevent tooth decay makes xylitol quite possibly the only sweetener approved by the dental community. As a dentist and parent I would encourage everyone to at least look at xylitol as a possible product to help in the ever increasing battle against tooth decay.
Dr. Jim Harding offers a full continuum of dental care from preventative and cosmetic procedures to complex restorations and dental implants. The Harding Dental Center (www.hardingdentalcenter.com) is located in Avon.