Chewing gum has been a favorite candy staple for thousands of years, dating as far back as the Neolithic period. Today, this confection comes in a variety of flavors (ranging from mint to fruit flavors... and even licorice!), and has a long history in many countries. Unlike many candies, which contain sugar and can wear down a person's enamel and teeth without continual brushing, some gum types have been created to have helpful properties, and can be a benefit to overall tooth care.
One of the most apparent effects of chewing gum is the instant fresh breath that it provides. A good mint flavored gum can help to get rid of those foul smelling bacterium that live inside your mouth, replacing them with a much more pleasant smell (as well as making for a better first impression on a first date or job interview).
Chewing gum is also beneficial as it helps to stimulate saliva, and keep the mouth moist, which helps to neutralize acid and keep teeth clean. Chewing gum can also help as a temporary means to satisfy hunger, which leads to reduction of extra snacks that could cause cavities.
Sugar-free gums have been available for quite some time, and have noticeably cut down on cavity production. In more recent years, companies have been putting additives in gum that actually have more healthful benefits than just reducing sugar intake.
Some gums contain a product called Xylitol that is used to reduce cavities and plaque. Xylitol is a natural sweetener that is considered "tooth friendly" by dental professionals, as it can actually "starve" the negative micro-organisms that damage teeth, allowing the teeth to re-mineralize faster. Xylitol also has the added benefit of tasting similar to actual sugar, meaning that gum chewers don't have to compromise a sweet taste for added protection.
Another additive that has been used in the production of more healthful chewing gum is called calcium lactate. When added to gums that contain Xylitol, it also can further aid in the re-mineralization process of enamel surfaces. In those instances where a toothbrush may not be readily available (i.e. a public place), chewing gum is the next best alternative. However, let me stress that it is not "substitute" for the brushing of one's teeth, or any other routine dental care. Regardless of how much gum is chewed, it is still important for a person to brush their teeth at least twice a day. But yes, augmenting brushing with chewing (the right) gum can be very helpful.
While there are some benefits to chewing gum, there are also some factors that a person should take into consideration before using it as a dental aid.
Chewing gum can cause some mouth disorders in certain people, such as a clicking or popping noise in the jaw, or tire out jaw muscles. If a person has a pre-existing jaw condition (such as a temporomandibular joint condition, otherwise known as "TMJ"), chewing gum can also help to aggravate the condition, as well as provide extra wear and tear on the cartilage surrounding the jaw joints.
Chewing gum that doesn't use helpful additives (like Xylitol and calcium lactate) can be risky and damaging for teeth. The most common ingredient in standard gums is sugar. Sugar has been commonly linked with causing numerous chronic dietary problems, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and emotional disorders. And, of course, good old cavities.
While there are gums that don't use sugar, some artificial sweeteners can be just as detrimental to a person's tooth care. The most common alternative to sugar is aspartame. This sweetener causes its own problems such as cancer, diabetes, neurological disorders and birth defects. The best preventative measure is to read the label for what ingredients are available in a particular gum, and doing research to see the benefits or detriments of any given product.
In the end ...
Using the right type of chewing gum as a dental aid has significant proven benefits. If used in moderation, and with the right ingredients included, it can provide that extra kick in providing healthy looking teeth and cavity prevention. Not to tout any particular brand, but Trident is one popular gum that uses Xylitol instead of other (more harmful) sweeteners.
So what are you waiting for? Pop that piece of chewing gum in your mouth after finishing your dinner, but be sure to save few pieces for your dinner guests as well.
Until next time, keep smiling!
Follow Thomas P. Connelly, D.D.S. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dr_connelly