Chewing Gum and Mints: Sugar vs. Sugar-Free

When you check out at the grocery store, the aisle is full of snacks, candy, chewing gum and mints.  While some snacks and candy are packed with sugar, we will not focus on those in this week’s blog.  The reason we have an entire blog focused on gum and mints is an important one: they spend more time in your mouth!

Why is Sugar So Bad for Teeth?

The sugar itself does not cause cavities, but it feeds the bacteria that do cause cavities.  Cavities develop when enamel softens and weakens, allowing the bacteria access to the internal structure of a tooth.  The process is a relatively simple one.  The bacteria “eat” sugar and create acid as a by-product of the sugar digestion.  This acid softens and weakens tooth enamel the same way that acid etches glass.  When the acid stays on a tooth long enough, it creates a cavity.

So there are four important factors in the cavity process: 1) Bacteria, 2) Sugar, 3) Time, 4) Acid.  Increasing any of these factors increases the risk of cavities.  Obviously, some of these factors are easier to control than others are.  Certain people have a stronger type of bacteria in their mouths.  Others have an acidic pH, due to dry mouth or nutritional problems.  Because we can control the amount of sugar we put into our mouths, it is one of the most important ways we can fight cavities.

Why is Sugar in Gum and Mints Worse than a Chocolate Bar?

Chewing gum and mints that contain sugar have a greater chance of causing cavities than a chocolate bar.  The reason for this is one of the four contributing factors to cavities: TIME!

Eating sugar is never as bad for your teeth as chewing or sucking on it.  Chewing gum or sucking on a mint provides a continuous supply of sugar the entire time it is in your mouth.  The longer the sugar is in contact with your teeth, the more time bacteria have to digest it.  This leads to more acid production and more enamel destruction.

Why is Gum Actually Better than Mints?

Even though both chewing gum and mints that contain sugar are bad for your teeth, chewing gum is slightly better.  Scientific research shows that the chewing action stimulates your body to produce more saliva, assuming that what you are chewing is food that needs to be swallowed.  Sucking on a mint does not produce this same saliva production.

Saliva is the body’s best defense against cavities.  Why?  Because of one of the four factors in the cavity-causing process: ACID!

Saliva has a high pH and counteracts the low, acidic pH produced by bacteria when they eat sugar.  It counteracts the acid and neutralizes it, providing a safe environment for the teeth.

When you chew gum and stimulate more saliva, you are adding protection for your teeth.  Sucking on a mint does not have this benefit!

What are the Best Choices for Gum and Mints? 

Of course, we dentists want you to only chew sugar-free gum or use sugar-free mints.  Any added sugar is bad for your teeth.  So the next time you are in the aisle at the grocery store, look for gum or mints that are sugar-free.  Manufacturers always mark it very clearly if their product is sugar-free.

We established above that chewing gum is slightly better for you than sucking on mints.  The same is true when the products are sugar-free.  Sugar-free gum is better for you than sugar-free mints, because of the stimulation of saliva.

What is Even Better than Sugar-Free?

In addition to looking for a “sugar-free” marking on every label, you can also read the ingredients.  There is a sugar substitute that is actually good for your teeth, called xylitol.  Many chewing gums and mints on the market today use xylitol as the sweetener.

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol from plants, naturally occurring in nature.  It is not synthetic or made in a lab.  The bacteria in our mouths ingest (eat) xylitol in the same way they ingest sugar.  The difference is that bacteria cannot digest xylitol, and it actually kills them!

Xylitol lowers a person’s risk for cavities and gum disease by fighting the bacteria that cause them.  When you use a mint with xylitol, you not only decrease your sugar intake, you also kill bacteria.  When you chew gum with xylitol, you do both of those things plus you stimulate saliva.

We recommend that all of our gum-chewing patients choose xylitol gum.  There are many brands on the market today, including Spry and Epic.  They are clearly marketed as xylitol gums.  An even easier brand to find is Ice Cubes by Hershey.  Ice Cubes gum is NOT clearly identified as a xylitol gum, but we have confirmed with the manufacturer that each piece contains 2g of xylitol.  Chewing several pieces each day is good for your oral health, especially after a meal.

More Questions about Which Gum or Mint is Best for You?

Our dental experts at Premier Dental of Ohio can answer any questions you have about chewing gum and mints with their various ingredients.  Call your nearest location today to schedule a consultation and get started on the road to great oral health.