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"Sugary foods and sticky candies can be difficult for children to resist, but they are a serious source of tooth decay, particularly when they get stuck in the crevices between teeth," says Scott Cayouette, DMD, FAGD, spokesperson for the AGD. "Additionally, many children consume large amounts of soft drinks and sports drinks, which are known to have a high acidic pH and sugar content—a recipe for disaster in terms of tooth decay." These dietary factors—combined with the possibility that children are drinking more unfluoridated tap or bottled water—might explain why the rates of tooth decay are rising.
However, Dr. Cayouette notes that xylitol gives dentists another weapon in the battle against tooth decay. "Xylitol provides a simple solution for tooth decay in children," he says. "It's a natural sugar that doesn't cause cavities and can actually help to prevent them."
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol found naturally in trees, fruits, and vegetables. It's also found naturally in the human liver, which is why it is safe for humans to consume. Unlike table sugar, which breaks down in the mouth and creates an acidic, cavity-promoting pH, xylitol does not break down and therefore does not create any harmful acids.
Xylitol can be found in an array of products—including candies, mints, lemonade mixes, all-purpose sweeteners, and certain brands of chewing gum—which can help patients fight cavities without forcing them to drastically change their daily oral hygiene regimen.
Research suggests that patients should consume between six and 10 grams, or three to five servings, of xylitol per day. "It's also important for patients to consume xylitol throughout the day and not all at once," Dr. Cayouette says. "The more often that xylitol interacts with the bacteria in your mouth, the better—that way, it's always fighting cavities."
While there is no quick fix for eliminating tooth decay, xylitol may offer a realistic way to counteract the problem, especially among the most vulnerable populations.
"Parents may wonder why a dentist would recommend that their young patients consume a sugar-like substance," says Dr. Cayouette, "but with more education, they will realize that xylitol is a natural product that can help to prevent cavities."
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