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The gum balls, chewing gum and bubble gum that most Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers remember from their youth were a recipe for cavities.

While sugar-laden products are still widely available, far better sugar-free alternatives are available today with the best being those containing the ingredient Xylitol.

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that can be extracted from many different fruits, vegetables, and most commonly from the birch tree. Some research suggests that Xylitol sugar serves as an anti-microbial and may not raise insulin levels, may reduce the likelihood of ear and sinus infections, may prevent cavities, and may reverse tooth decay.  Reports of Xylitol’s alleged cavity-fighting properties led to the production and sale of a number of products these benefits including Xylitol toothpaste, mouthwash, gum, mints and candy.

Some recent research calls into question the effectiveness of Xylitol in preventing or reducing cavities but suggests there may be other benefits to chewing gum sweetened by Xylitol. In January of this year, Anahad O’Connor of The New York Times reported on research that suggested that Xylitol offered “no statistically significant reduction in cavities.” According to lead researcher in the study, Dr. James D. Bader noted in an interview that sugar-free gum with Xylitol had no direct effect but that the increase in salivary flow from chewing Xylitol gum rinses the teeth and the cavity causing plaque and acid.

Many sugarless gums also include another sugar alcohol called Sorbitol which may be better than sugar but studies suggest may not be as effective as Xylitol. Both Xylitol and Sorbitol have potential side effects including abdominal discomfort, allergic reactions, diarrhea, and cramping.

While there may be some conflicting research as to the actual ability of the Xylitol sugar to combat tooth decay, there are benefits for chewing this gum if you regularly chew gum. In addition, as salivary flow is the primary benefit, be sure to also remember to drink plenty of water on a regular basis in addition to brushing and flossing.