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A sugar that prevents tooth decay?

If you're a gum chewer, or a parent of a child prone to ear infections, you may have heard of xylitol. But even so, you may not know exactly what it is. (I didn't.) It sounds like it was concocted in a laboratory, right? Which is where the confusion starts. A few weeks ago, I attended a conference which brought together top researchers, dental experts, and editors such as myself to learn the latest about this naturally occurring sugar. I left the event feeling guilty that I don't regularly give xylitol to my two kids.

HOW IT WORKS: Bacteria LOVE our typical carb-rich diet, which creates an optimum environment for them to set up shop and eat our teeth. The mouth becomes acidic (translate: the perfect for conditions for bacterial growth) when we eat bagels, and even (gulp!) squirt agave nectar in our tea (honey, agave, molasses are not much better than table sugar). So, how could something sweet actually prevent tooth decay?

Xylitol, which occurs naturally in fruits and is also made by the body, prevents bacteria from adhering to teeth and forming larger bacterial masses (plaque). Because it has a similar molecular makeup to other sugars, it "confuses" the bacteria, which grab onto the xylitol molecule but then are unable to use it for energy. Eva Soderling, PhD, one of the foremost xylitol researchers, reported that new xylitol research shows that it can help prevent Mutans Streptococci bacteria (the worst bacteria in terms of tooth decay) from becoming established in children's mouths.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: For oral health, gum and mints (such as Spry) are the way to go. Xylitol should be high on the ingredient list (small amounts of xylitol won't have much effect) and should be the primary sweetener. A little xylitol in a high-sugar product won't do your teeth any favors.

HOW TO TAKE: Aim for approximately 4g (teaspoon) to 12g (tablespoon). Frequency is very important. Use at least 3 times (3-5 times) a day, after meals and snacks.

WHEN TO USE: Anyone can benefit from xylitol, but benefits may be greatest during teething (tooth eruption) or when children are getting their permanent teeth. It enhances early mineralization and inhibits initial colonization by bacteria. Children too young for gum or mints can take xylitol gel. It is also particularly helpful during orthodontic work. Xylitol may also benefit gingivitis or periodontitis patients.

ADDITIONAL BENEFITS: It improves gut function (similar to fiber), boosts calcium absorption, and may be helpful for balancing blood sugar. It has 40% less calories than sugar, and has a sweet, cooling taste with no bitter aftertaste. Can be substituted 1:1 with conventional sugar.

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