Humans have a natural like for things that taste sweet, but as anyone who pays attention to their diet knows, not all sweet things are created equal. Naturally occurring food sugars, such as those in milk and fruit, come along with a host of nutrients, while added sugars are empty calories – empty but tasty, which is why we find added sugars in so many processed foods. The manufacturers exploit our love of sweetness, even as some of the sugars they use, such as high fructose corn syrup, may have other “benefits,” as well (such as a preservative effect).
Artificial sugars were made to provide the taste without the calories. But sweeteners such as aspartame (as in NutraSweet or Equal), saccharin (Sweet’N Low) and sucralose (Splenda) have long been suspected of having a negative impact on health. Researchers continue to explore what’s long been reported clinically and anecdotally.
Sugar alcohols, on the other hand – sweeteners such as sorbitol and manitol – have fared much better. The only common side effects reported to date are gas/bloating and diarrhea – though you’d need to ingest an awful lot to cause them. Because they’re sweeter than artificial sugars and have low carb and low calorie profiles, sugar alcohols are also used in many processed foods. One in particular even has a role in dental health.
Xylitol occurs naturally in various berries, oats and mushrooms, and it can be derived from sources such as corn fiber and wood. It’s a common sweetener for gum, as well as an ingredient in some toothpastes, including the PerioPaste I recommend to patients for tooth and gum health. This isn’t just because of the sweetness or the fact that xylitol – like all sugar alcohols – doesn’t contribute to tooth decay. Rather, xylitol appears to have special properties that may actually help prevent tooth decay.
Early studies from Finland in the 1970s found that a group chewing sucrose gum had 2.92 decayed, missing, or filled (dmf) teeth compared to 1.04 in the group chewing xylitol gums. In another study, researchers had mothers chew xylitol gum when their children were 3 months old until they were 2 years old. The researchers found the children of the mothers in the xylitol group had “a 70% reduction in cavities (dmf)” when they reached 5 years of age. Recent research[ confirms a plaque-reducing effect and suggests the compound, having some chemical properties similar to sucrose, attracts and then “starves” harmful micro-organisms, allowing the mouth to remineralize damaged teeth with less interruption. (Wikipedia)
A recent feature in Sri Lanka’s Sunday Observer outlines three major factors that make xylitol an effective fighter of tooth decay:
- It keeps S.Mutans – one of the main microbes involved with tooth decay – from clinging to teeth.
- Since it can’t be fermented by oral microbes, it inhibits demineralization of the teeth. No fermentation, none of the acidic byproducts that cause caries (cavities).
- It reduces the growth of S.Mutans.
To the last point, the author notes that “in 2006, researchers at the University of Washington showed that after 5 weeks of Xylitol usage the level of mutans streptococci in plaques was ten times lower than at the start.”
To learn more about this remarkable substance, check out the full article.