Illustration by Justine Wong

Chewing Gum: How Bad Is It?

In our “How Bad Is It?” series, we answer your cringing questions about whether something you’ve done, or do everyday, is bad for your oral health (or completely harmless).

By Tend

You’ve may have heard that gum is bad for your teeth. You may have also heard that it’s good for them.

So…which is it? Does gum chewing lead to cavities and decay, or to whiter smiles and fresh breath? (Because really, can a product sold in the candy aisle actually help keep your teeth clean?)

To get the 411 on chewing gum, we sat down with Dr. Marc Schlenoff, Tend’s Head of Clinical Development.

Choose the right chew

It’s time to set the record straight: chewing gum can be good...if you pick the right kind.

According to Dr. Schlenoff, chewing gum “is actually not bad for you at all—as long as it’s sugar-free.”

Sugar and your teeth: not so sweet

What’s the problem with sugar? In your mouth, sugar gets broken down by bacteria. These so-called “bad bacteria” produce a few gnarly byproducts in the process, including dental plaque and acid. The acid can disrupt your mouth’s delicate pH balance, leading to enamel erosion and cavities, while the plaque can build up and harden, leading to tooth decay.

Sugar-free ways to sweeten the deal

Fortunately for gum-lovers, there are sugar-free alternatives. Some popular sugar substitutes in gum include alcohol sugars (such as sorbitol, mannitol, and xylitol), aspartame, and stevia extract.

Not only do these sweeteners avoid the problems caused by sugar, some may actually offer benefits for your mouth. For example, in addition to sweetening like sugar, gum made with sorbitol “has actually been shown to reduce tooth decay,” per Dr. Schlenoff.

Mouthwateringly good for you

Chewing gum naturally increases saliva flow, and “saliva flow is always a good thing,” says Dr. Schlenoff. Increased saliva flow helps to neutralize and wash away any lingering acids that are produced when you eat—which helps maintain your mouth’s pH balance and preserve your enamel. One study found that people who chewed sugar-free gum for about 20 minutes after eating a meal actually had a lower incidence of cavities.

Watch out for TMD

One important note: although sugar-free gum has a sparkling reputation, all that chewing can pose a potential risk. TMD (or temporomandibular joint disorder) can cause jaw and muscle pain as well as difficulty chewing. “Some people are more naturally disposed to TMD,” says Dr. Schlenoff, “but there’s an easy solution if that happens: stop the chewing.”

The bottom line

Still unsure of how your gum stacks up? When in doubt, pick a pack with the American Dental Association’s Seal of Approval: reserved for sugar-free picks that aren’t going to harm—and may even help!—your oral health.

Worried about your own habits?

Be frank with your dentist. Not comfortable talking to your dentist about this kind of thing? Maybe it’s time for a new dentist.

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