Sugar-free gum may not do as much good for your teeth as you thought, according to new research. (Photo: Flickr/Kyle Lam)
Sugar-free chewing gum flavored with xylitol is often touted as “good” for oral health. But new research is calling that claim into question.
Xylitol is used in many products around the world — and not just chewing gum. You’ll find it in “light” sweets as a calorie-reducing sugar substitute, as well as in toothpaste, lozenges, and gels. A body of research indicates the sweetener causes less harm to teeth than regular sugar, and some claim it actually promotes oral health by slowing the growth of bacteria on teeth.
The new research, published in the Cochrane Library, included data from 10 different studies that included 5,903 participants. Although the study methods varied enough that researchers had a difficult time combining the results, they assessed each for findings about the subjects’ oral health.
Among their findings: Of 4,216 young children in two studies conducted in Costa Rica, the researchers found some evidence that xylitol helped prevent tooth decay. The kids who used a toothpaste with xylitol and fluoride had 13 percent less tooth decay on the whole than those who used only a fluoride-based toothpaste.
However, in the other studies examining the benefits of xylitol in candies and tablets, researchers found next to no evidence that the natural sweetener boosted oral health.
“The evidence we identified did not allow us to make any robust conclusions about the effects of xylitol, and we were unable to prove any benefit in the natural sweetener for preventing tooth decay,” study researcher Philip Riley of the University of Manchester School of Dentistry, said in a statement. “The limited research on xylitol-containing toothpaste in children may only be relevant to the population studied.”
Riley was shocked that more support didn’t exist for the use of xylitol in other products. “We were particularly surprised to see such a lack of evidence on xylitol-containing chewing gums,” he says.
The researchers also note that several of the studies failed to mention the common gastrointestinal symptoms associated with xylitol on participants, like bloating, diarrhea, and laxative effects — and these side effects may negate any supposed benefits for people in search of healthier sweets, mints, ice cream, or candy, among other xylitol-containing products.
So, is xylitol good for your teeth? Perhaps in children’s toothpaste, but perhaps not in other products — like that oh-so-common sugar-free chewing gum.