I have lots of moms ask me about how to prevent cavities in their kids. I usually give the standard answer of brushing and flossing regularly, avoiding sugary foods, sealants and regular visits to the dentist. There is another answer that most people haven’t heard of, but dentists are pretty excited about – xylitol. Xylitol is a sugar substitute. What makes this sugar alcohol different from all the others is that it helps to prevent tooth decay. That’s what all the fuss is about.
For all you trivia buffs out there, dental caries (cavities) are caused by bacteria in your mouth called Streptcoccus mutans. This species of bacteria digest sugar and need it to grow. The byproduct of this digestion is acid. The acid breaks down the enamel on your teeth and BAM – you’ve got a cavity. Bummer
Strep mutans can’t digest xylitol. If you substitute xylitol for sugar in your diet, those bacteria will starve and there will be less of them in your mouth over time. An even cooler bonus is that the pH of your mouth can become less acidic. This more alkaline environment causes the saliva to deposit calcium and phosphorous. These deposits can remineralize enamel. That means if you have the very start of a cavity, it can reverse the process.
Technically, you can use xylitol for most of your sugar needs. Yeast can’t digest xylitol either, so you can’t use it with all your baking (this makes no impact on my life). But, you can have too much of a good thing. If you consume too much xylitol, it can have a laxative effect. It is also not safe for dogs, so please take appropriate cautions. Xylitol is most commonly found in gums, toothpastes and mints. You can find them at health food stores and online.
I would recommend having the gums and mints around for after meals and snacks. It’s not a bad idea to use the toothpaste as well. That’s probably adequate use to get some of the benefits without risking some of the uncomfortable side effects. Let me know if you have any questions.