Using Xylitol to Prevent and Control Cavities

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CHICAGO—If there’s one thing that all dentists have in common, it’s that they regularly see young patients with tooth decay. Roughly 42 percent of children ages 2 to 11 have had decay in their primary teeth, while approximately 32 percent of children ages 9 to 11 have decay in their permanent teeth. Although it’s vital for all patients to brush and floss every day, children in particular can improve their oral health by adding xylitol to their daily oral hygiene routine, according to an article published in the July 2010 issue of AGD Impact, the monthly newsmagazine of the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD).

“Sugary foods and sticky candies can be difficult for children to resist, but they are a serious source of tooth decay, particularly when they get stuck in the crevices between teeth,” said Scott Cayouette, DMD, FAGD, spokesperson for the AGD. “Additionally, many children consume large amounts of soft drinks and sports drinks, which are known to have a high acidic pH and sugar content—a recipe for disaster in terms of tooth decay.” These dietary factors—combined with the possibility that children are drinking more unfluoridated tap or bottled water—might explain why the rates of tooth decay are rising.

However, Dr. Cayouette notes that xylitol gives dentists another weapon in the battle against tooth decay.

“Xylitol provides a simple solution for tooth decay in children,” he said. “It’s a natural sugar that doesn’t cause cavities and can actually help to prevent them.”

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol found naturally in trees, fruits, and vegetables. It’s also found naturally in the human liver, which is why it is safe for humans to consume. Unlike table sugar, which breaks down in the mouth and creates an acidic, cavity-promoting pH, xylitol does not break down and therefore does not create any harmful acids.

Xylitol can be found in an array of products—including candies, mints, lemonade mixes, all-purpose sweeteners, and certain brands of chewing gum—which can help patients fight cavities without forcing them to drastically change their daily oral hygiene regimen.

Research suggests that patients should consume between six and 10 grams, or three to five servings, of xylitol per day.

“It’s also important for patients to consume xylitol throughout the day and not all at once,” Dr. Cayouette said. “The more often that xylitol interacts with the bacteria in your mouth, the better—that way, it’s always fighting cavities.”

While there is no quick fix for eliminating tooth decay, xylitol may offer a realistic way to counteract the problem, especially among the most vulnerable populations.

“Parents may wonder why a dentist would recommend that their young patients consume a sugar-like substance,” Dr. Cayouette said. “But with more education, they will realize that xylitol is a natural product that can help to prevent cavities.”

Although xylitol is safe for humans, it is important to note that there is one population—a furry one—that cannot tolerate the sweetener. An article published in the February 2010 issue of AGD Impact reports that, even in small amounts, xylitol can be deadly to dogs. For this reason, it’s important to keep xylitol-containing products out of your canine’s reach.

The Academy of General Dentistry (AGD) is a professional association of more than 35,000 general dentists dedicated to staying up to date in the profession through continuing education. Founded in 1952, the AGD has grown to become the second-largest dental association in the United States, and it is the only association that exclusively represents the needs and interests of general dentists. More than 772,000 persons in the United States are employed directly in the field of dentistry. A general dentist is the primary care provider for patients of all ages and is responsible for the diagnosis, treatment, management, and overall coordination of services related to patients’ oral health needs.