It almost sounds too good to be true: a substance that tastes like sugar but actually helps improve dental health. This substance is xylitol and it was not created by scientists in a lab; it actually comes from nature and can be found in a variety of fruits and vegetables and is also produced by the body. It is made commercially using corn or birch bark.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol which has a similar sweetness to sugar, but it actually can help prevent dental cavities. Plaque-causing bacteria that normally thrive in the mouth cannot use xylitol as a source of nutrition. They are also less likely to stick to the teeth in the presence of xylitol. With continued use, the number of these "bad" bacteria actually decreases. A reduced bacteria count also helps keep the pH stable and not too acidic. Regular use of xylitol makes the saliva more alkaline, helping to re-mineralize softer decayed areas of the tooth enamel.
It has about 40% fewer calories than regular sugar and is slowly digested and not fully absorbed by the body so it won't raise blood sugar and insulin levels like regular sugar. Another interesting use of xylitol includes helping to reduce the risk of ear infections in children.
It is available in a variety of gums, candies, toothpastes, and granules. Look for gums and candies with xylitol as the first ingredient; these higher quality products will be more effective than products with less xylitol. The only negative side effect may be some digestive distress if consumed in unusually high doses. The daily dose required to reduce the risk of tooth decay is 5 grams which can easily be met by chewing gum a few times per day or eating mints after meals.
Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, 2012
California Dental Association http://www.cda.org/popup/Xylitol
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