According to a new scientific review, yes, yes, you can.
Motivated by “a definite need to update and refresh existing knowledge” about how sugar-free gum may impact tooth decay, researchers at King’s College London reviewed 50 years’ worth of studies. Their findings were published late last year in the Journal of Dental Research.
All told, they found 12 studies that met their criteria, exploring the “impact and intervention outcome” of chewing sugar-free gum on oral health conditions – in particular, dental caries in both adults and kids. They found “tentative evidence” that chewing sugar-free gum did indeed reduce decay a bit, compared with not chewing gum.
Why might the gum chewing help? As lead author Dr. Avijit Banerjee put it,
Both the stimulation of saliva which can act as a natural barrier to protect teeth, and the mechanical plaque control that results from the act of chewing, can contribute to the prevention of dental caries. Sugar-free gum can also act as a carrier for antibacterial ingredients including xylitol and sorbitol.
But not all sugar-free gum is equal. For instance, in addition to the artificial flavors and colors you don’t want to see in any product, some brands can contain artificial sweeteners that have troubling drawbacks for overall health – ingredients such as aspartame, Ace-K, and sucralose.
The authors of the current review also found that xylitol gum seemed to be a little better at preventing decay than gum sweetened with sorbitol.
Including the 8 trials that used xylitol gum only as the basis of the intervention, the prevention fraction was 33%. No adverse effects were recorded.
We’ve known for a while that xylitol may protect against caries. How?
Xylitol reduces the levels of mutans streptococci (MS) in plaque and saliva by disrupting their energy production processes, leading to futile energy cycle and cell death. It reduces the adhesion of these microorganisms to the teeth surface and also reduces their acid production potential.
Meantime, the increased salivary flow from the chewing itself helps teeth remineralize. (Just be sure you give your body the nutrients it needs for healthy remineralization!)
That said, xylitol isn’t for everyone, especially if you have food allergies, since it can be sourced from such a wide variety of materials, including corn stalks or cobs, rice straw, eucalyptus, barley bran, and plant waste.
Nor is gum chewing recommended if you suffer from TMD or migraines and tension headaches, since the chewing can just make the pain and other symptoms worse. You should also steer clear of gum if you have dental work that could be compromised. Be sure to talk with your biological dentist if you have any such concerns.
But if you do choose to chew gum, know there may be some benefits beyond cavity prevention. For instance, research has shown that it may improve attention and work performance, reduce chronic stress, and help you quit smoking. There’s even some evidence that xylitol gum may help prevent middle ear infections in children.
And because it’s not just about what kind of gum you chew, but also how you chew it, here’s a gentle reminder from Emily Post on gum-chewing etiquette.
Gum bin image from Ben Sutherland