Oral Health Effects of Chewing Gum
By: Jaclyn Kotora, Contributing Writer
Edited by: Olivia Storti, Editor; Elias Azizi, Editor in Chief
Whether it be the iconic, pink, and faintly fruity bubble gum, or the fresh, cool taste of mint gum, many people, mainly young adults, chew this candy-like product daily. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average American chews 1.8 pounds of gum every year. Many people may use gum to help with psychological aspects, such as decreasing stress, managing anxiety, or increasing concentration. However, there are many, often ignored, health effects of chewing gum. In terms of oral health, the impacts largely depend on the type of gum chewed. While sugar-containing gum can cause dental complications, sugar-free gum is proven to be preventive for these complications and has additional oral health benefits.
Sugar-containing gum tends to be the perpetrator of many of the detrimental oral health effects, such as tooth decay and cavities (also called dental caries). According to Chewing Gum--Facts and Fiction: A Review of Gum-Chewing and Oral Health, “children who chewed 5 pieces of sucrose-containing chewing gum per day for 30 months experienced 16 to 36% more caries (depending on surfaces counted) than those who chewed sugar-free chewing gum.” To re-cap, the study revealed that sugar causes more cavities within children compared to those who chewed sugar-free gum. The sugar in the gum feeds bacteria, which then release dental biofilm and acid, which can lead to demineralization/tooth decay and caries, (American Dental Association). Habitual use of gum can increase caries and the amount of plaque on your teeth. In the United States, “Sucrose gum was always associated with enhanced plaque growth when compared with sugar-free chewing gum. Higher plaque weights were found in subjects after 3 days of chewing of sucrose gum when compared with different amounts of xylitol-containing [sugar-free] chewing gum.” Plaque is a bacteria film that coats the teeth, and if not removed when still soft, it can harden or eventually cause tooth damage or decay. Gum with sugar in it can often decrease the pH of the plaque, making it more acidic, which can destroy tooth enamel.
On the other hand, sugar-free chewing gum is proven to have various oral health benefits. The most common sugar substitutes are sorbitol, mannitol, isomalt, maltitol, lactitol, and xylitol, all proven to be non-cariogenic (not producing caries) or very mildly cariogenic, and proven to be non-acidogenic or hypo-acidogenic. One of the primary oral benefits is the increased flow of saliva. As explained by Mouth Healthy, brought to you by the ADA, “The chewing of sugarless gum increases the flow of saliva, which washes away food and other debris, neutralizes acids produced by bacteria in the mouth, and provides disease-fighting substances throughout the mouth. Increased saliva flow also carries with it more calcium and phosphate to help strengthen tooth enamel.” Saliva also promotes the remineralization of beginner cavities. Remineralization is an organic process that works to repair tooth enamel before cavities form. In addition, the stimulation of saliva serves as a buffering between the enamel and acids. According to the BDJ Team, an online magazine for dental care professionals, “This bicarbonate raises the pH of the saliva and greatly increases its buffering power; the saliva is, therefore, much more effective in neutralizing and buffering food acids and acids arising in plaque from the fermentation of carbohydrate.” Not only is sugar-free gum preventative of cavities, but the saliva stimulation that is the result of mastication (chewing) also serves several health benefits to teeth.
While sugar-free gum claims to remove plaque and food debris from teeth, it is not a substitute for regular dental hygiene practices, like using a toothbrush or flossing. Chewing Gum--Facts and Fiction describes a study to corroborate this, explaining, “Plaque scores were compared in 10 volunteers during a ten-day test period with either chewing gum only, toothbrush only, toothbrush and floss, and toothbrush and water (McCall et al., 1964)... authors concluded that chewing gum proved the least effective method for plaque removal.”
While one piece of sugar-containing gum will not give you a cavity, people should refrain from chewing too much sugar gum. Habitual use of this can cause caries, tooth decay, enamel erosion, and demineralization. However, sugar-substituted gum (sugar-free gum) can be used without risk of cavities, and it has oral health benefits such as increased saliva flow, increased remineralization, and a more balanced plaque pH.
In terms of finding the gum to best benefit your teeth, look for brands stamped with the ADA Seal, which indicates that the gum is sugar-free and is sweetened by non-cariogenic sweeteners. Also, labels that claim to be “safe for teeth” or “tooth-friendly” are put on products that are tested to be safe for teeth. Looking for and buying products with these labels can ensure that you are using gum that is not detrimental to your oral health.