Many kids like to chew gum, but there is conflicting information about whether it is good for them or can be harmful. The right gum can be beneficial in some cases, while the wrong kind can be detrimental to your child’s oral health.
The mouth is full of bacteria, including streptococcus mutans, which are responsible for the formation of cavities. When the bacteria are combined with sugar from food, beverages, or gum, they produce acid that wears away at tooth enamel and can cause cavities and demineralization.
Saliva neutralizes the acid that causes cavities. Chewing gum increases the mouth’s production of saliva and neutralizes more acid. If the mouth produces more saliva and the amount of acid is reduced, this can cause the tooth enamel to remineralize and reverse cavities. However, gums that are sweetened with sugar can increase the amount of acid in the mouth.
Xylitol is a natural sweetener that is found in some fruits and vegetables and has fewer calories than sugar. It is also found in some types of gum. Xylitol gum can reduce the growth of streptococcus mutans bacteria because the bacteria are not able to metabolize it. This effect can last for years. Xylitol gum is most effective when it is chewed often around the ages of 5 and 6, before children get their permanent teeth.
Chewing gum with xylitol can help prevent cavities. One study found that xylitol reduced the amount of plaque on subjects’ teeth by 35 percent. Chewing gum that contains xylitol or recaldent, a form of calcium phosphate, can harden enamel, even if cavities have already started to develop. Calcium lactate is another additive that, when added to gum with xylitol, can help with remineralization.
If it is not possible for your child to brush his or her teeth after a meal, chewing gum is a good alternative. However, chewing gum is no substitute for brushing and flossing. You should be sure to give your child only sugar-free gum, preferably a variety that contains xylitol, recaldent, or calcium lactate.