Xylitol’s Oral Health Benefits: A Sweet Alternative
Sugar substitutes come and go all the time, and most of us are used to hearing about the latest and greatest sugar alternative for the new sugar-free snack. But who has ever found a sugar alternative that dentists actively recommend as good for our teeth? That might be unheard of — until now.
Xylitol, a sweetener derived from birchwood, has been growing in popularity over the last decade in the health food community, and has crept into the medical field as well. Studies from dental associations, such as the California Dental Association, have been proving that the sweetener xylitol has some powerful benefits for your teeth. They even recommend that patients consume up to 5 grams per day.
But why? What is xylitol and how does it help your teeth?
Before we get into that, let’s step back and look at the cause of cavities and poor oral health.
The Cause of Cavities
Cavities and tooth decay are caused by bacteria in the mouth. These tiny little organisms are capable of destroying even the prettiest pearly whites. When you eat food that contains sugar (sucrose), the bacteria in your mouth consume it — and are suddenly filled with energy. They begin to multiply and produce acid, causing the pH of your mouth to shift dramatically to an environment balanced for their health, rather than the health of your mouth. This acid destroys the calcium and phosphate bonds in your teeth. If enough of these minerals are leached away, the result is a cavity.
How Xylitol Protects Your Teeth
So, where does xylitol come in?
Unlike other sweeteners, xylitol isn’t a sugar. Xylitol is a natural sweetener derived from fibrous plants (particularly birchwood). Xylitol does not break down like sugar, and acts as a pH neutralizer, bacteria inhibitor, and stimulates distribution of minerals to your teeth.
Unlike other sweeteners that send your pH whirling off kilter, xylitol acts a pH balancer. It is sweet, but it’s not a sugar. Research has shown that a mere five minutes of exposure to a 100% xylitol-sweetened product can neutralize acids and return the pH of the mouth back to its optimum level.
People who consume a lot of acidic foods and drinks (think energy drinks, sports drinks, soda, candies, and sweets) usually see a big dip in the pH of their mouths — and bodies as a whole. When pH is out of balance, essential minerals are pulled out of the enamel of the teeth, which leads to softened enamel and tooth decay.
Xylitol helps saliva become more alkaline, raising the concentration of basic amino acids. Additionally, the pH of the plaque in your mouth rises as well — and that’s a good thing! A higher pH helps plaque be removed more readily. Additionally, when the pH goes above 7, calcium and phosphate salts in your saliva will begin to repair those parts of your enamel that have weakened.
Inhibits Bacterial Growth
The bacteria in your mouth feed on sugar. When xylitol enters the mouth, the bacteria identify it as a food source and bring it through their cellular walls for fuel. But, when they do, they discover they’ve pulled in the unusable molecule xylitol phosphate. Over time, the xylitol builds up inside the bacteria cell, blocking the bacteria’s digestive function and its ability to produce acid. As they are unable to consume fuel or multiply, the number of bacteria within the mouth decreases over time, falling as much as 90%.
Additionally, the neutralized pH of the saliva and the inhibited activity of the bacteria means that they are no longer able to stick to the surface of teeth as well. The result? Less plaque, and less chance of cavity development.
The California Dental Association observes that,
“Over time with xylitol use, the quality of the bacteria in the mouth changes and fewer and fewer decay-causing bacteria survive on tooth surfaces. Less plaque forms and the level of acids attacking the tooth surface is lowered."
Low salivary flow is a concern for many patients. Salivary flow plays an important role in depositing calcium and phosphates onto the enamel of the teeth. Both minerals are vital to tooth health. Without adequate saliva in the mouth, the teeth don’t receive the quantity of nutrients necessary to remain healthy and cavity-free.
Xylitol helps here too. It stimulates the salivary glands, and in so doing increases the amount of saliva in the mouth. This allows the minerals to be deposited, and, as an added bonus, relieves the discomfort of a dry mouth.
How to Get Your Daily Dose
You can find xylitol in many products at your local health food store. Our favorite brand at Apple Wellness is Xyloburst. Xylitol candies and gum are one of the best ways to get a daily dose of xylitol, while also satisfying those pesky sugar cravings — just without the sugar! These candies are sweet, without the bite of stevia or the molasses flavor of agave. The taste is, well, just like a normal sugar.
Xylitol can also be purchased as a sweetener to be added to breads, pastries, dressings, and other dishes. In fact, you can use xylitol as a replacement for sugar in every recipe except for those that use sugar to help yeast rise.
Of course, xylitol in any form isn’t a replacement for a healthy oral care routine and regular dental exams. So, keep your biannual checkups on the calendar. But, rest assured that when you visit, your dentist will exclaim over the health of your teeth.
Article Contributed by Apple Wellness