Who doesn’t fondly remember chewing gum as part of your childhood? When I was younger, it was a bribe well- earned when my parents found themselves in a “sticky” situation and needed us kids on our best behavior. Other times it was about killing time with my best friend on summer days, competing to blow the biggest bubble, blowing a bubble within a bubble (I can still do that!), and strategically cutting the bubble out of our hair when the wind blew at just the wrong moment, making the “bubble inflation event” go awry. Still, even with all the fun that gum provided, it was also known to be the cause of cavities, a risk widely accepted if one was going to chew.
Wrigley, Bazooka, and Dentyne were just a few of the more popular brands of the 60’ and 70’s. Beemans, Black Jack, and Clove were not as well known to me growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, but I know many of you can recall your parents and grandparents sharing these hallmark names in chewing gum. What they all have in common, however, is a higher level of sugar, which when chewed, exposes the teeth to a sticky, concentrated amount of sugar for an extended period…bathing the teeth in this yummy goodness but weakening the enamel. Multiply that by one or two pieces a day several times a week, and the result can leave a “sour taste” in our mouth and holes in our teeth!
In 1964, Trident introduced sugar-free gum. Its popularity was initially “stuck under the chair,” but its benefits in preventing tooth decay were soon unwrapped, and the gum consumer bit into the idea of this sugar-free craze! Though there are still some who feel chewing gum is as annoying as that found “stuck on the bottom of your shoe,” medical and dental professionals have widely accepted several benefits worth chewing on.
Chewing sugar-free gum helps to cleanse the teeth via mechanical abrasion. The contact of the gum against the tooth and gum tissue helps to remove biofilm and plaque from these surfaces. Also, the chewing motion combined with the stickiness of the gum helps to dislodge food particles from in-between the teeth and the biting surfaces of the molars. Chewing gum also creates an increase in salivary flow which helps to dilute and neutralize the damaging acids that form and weaken enamel. After eating, the bacteria break down carbohydrates into sugar resulting into byproducts that lower the pH of the mouth, becoming more acidic. Chewing gum is proven to raise the pH level to near 7 or higher (A pH of 7 is a neutral chemical state…water is an example of a solution with a pH7). Calcium can also be introduced to the teeth via gum, which “helps strengthen the enamel” (ADA), making it not only more resistant to acid production but also enhances remineralization of the enamel.
Different gum boasts various benefits. For example, there are several different names and recipes of chewing gum under the umbrella name of “Trident.” In fact, not all Trident is the same!! Trident Xtra Care has an ingredient called Recaldent, which is calcium, derived from cow’s milk that when delivered to the tooth becomes incorporated into the enamel and strengthens the tooth surface. Some gum manufacturers have considered an incorporation of fluoride into the gum and yet others, including Trident Original, have added xylitol, a naturally occurring sugar that has proven to help prevent tooth decay. That said, the ADA states that chewing gum for 20 minutes after eating results in a decrease in the development of tooth decay.
A naturally occurring sugar, xylitol can be found in most fruits and vegetables but extracted from birch wood for medicinal purposes (WebMD). Used mostly as a sugar substitute, it can be found in chewing gum, candy and mints. The value of xylitol blows holes in the development of tooth decay! Streptococcus mutans are bacteria found in the mouth that are responsible for fermenting sugar into an acid, etching holes into the enamel and the creation of tooth decay. Considered a “safe sweetener,” xylitol inhibits the bacteria from developing acid, thereby reducing cavity production. Also, researchers have also discovered medicinal benefits of xylitol including the destruction of some bacteria found in middle ear infections and its safe consumption by diabetics. Xylitol can be found in less common named gum manufacturers like Epic and Spry. These brands have a higher level of xylitol, averaging 1 gram per serving which is proven most helpful in decay prevention. Studies have shown that in underdeveloped areas and in areas where dental treatment is more difficult to receive, children chewing gum with xylitol for 5-20 minutes before bed experienced a significant decrease in the development of tooth decay.
Dry mouth is a common side effect of many medications and some cancer treatments. Having dry mouth can put an individual at a higher risk for tooth decay, and gum disease as the natural rinsing properties of saliva are limited, leaving a large sticky population of bacteria on the teeth and gums. Chewing gum helps to stimulate the saliva ducts producing more saliva and rinsing the teeth.
Bad breath is one of the leading concerns of dental patients today. The causes can be related to a larger population of bacteria and their byproducts spilling over, or it can be from a food source that was recently ingested. Chewing gum can help neutralize some of the odor, reduce the bacteria causing some bad breath and increase digestive activity and reduce a stale digestive system. Bad breath can be the result of several conditions orally and digestively and if persistent should be looked into with more detail. However, for more common conditions that affect breath like food sources and a higher bacterial population, gum can help alleviate some embarrassing odors until a toothbrush and floss are available.
Chewing gum has some valuable medicinal properties as well. Many in the medical community are realizing the benefits gum has on post-surgical gastro-intestinal processes, the treatment of nausea and motion sickness and the relationship and improvement of some cognitive abilities while chewing gum.
So while many of us have grown up to believe chewing gum was bad for our teeth, today's gum can be helpful in preventing tooth decay! Not all gum provides equal benefits, but reading labels, looking for xylitol and staying away from sugar will minimize any harmful side effects…so grab a stick and have a whale of a time!
A wad of fun facts to chew on:
• Chewing gum dates back more than 9,000 years ago.
• Ancient Mayans and Aztecs chewed “Chicle” which is extracted from the sapodilla tree.
• 1850’s John Curtis opened the first chewing gum factory in Portland, Maine.
• 1893 William Wrigley Jr. introduced Juicy Fruit and Spearmint Gum.
• Wrigley's marketing campaign included free samples and “sending gum to children on their second birthday.”
• 1928 Competitor employee from Fleer Corporation Walter Diemer developed what is known as Dubble Bubble.
• Chewing gum that is swallowed WILL NOT STICK TO YOUR TUMMY FOR 7 YEARS…in fact it will pass normally.
• Gum was made from whale blubber??? This is a fun fact I cannot confirm or deny…though most answers point toward myth…There are a few sources that leave me chomping at the bit for the truth!
• I had a patient that was a Chiclets gum tester in 1930’s-1940’s…Introduced in 1900, the name Chiclets was derived from the word “chicle,” the naturally occurring plant-based “gum.”