A lot of people ask us “Is chewing gum good for you?”, and the answer might surprise you.

Most people ask this question because they assume that something about the chewing itself is bad for your teeth, but that isn’t the case. The most important factor isn’t if you chew gum, it’s what kind of gum you chew.

Gum that contains sugar is bad for your oral health, that much is pretty cut and dry. Plaque bacteria feed off of sugar, so if you’re chewing gum that contains sugar, that means that you’ll have more bad bacteria in your mouth. What can complicate things further is that some of the sugar develops a glue-like texture, making it harder for saliva to wash away the sugar and plaque. This can lead to tooth decay, cavities, and several other dental issues.

While chewing gum containing sugar can increase your chances of developing oral health problems, there is clinical evidence that demonstrates just the opposite is true for sugar-free gum. Several studies have shown that chewing sugar-free gum after meals and snacks can help rinse off and neutralize the enamel-damaging acids released by the bacteria in plaque. The chewing motion itself and the flavor of the artificial sweeteners in the gum stimulate ten times the normal rate of saliva flow. Increased saliva flow helps to neutralize the acids in your mouth and it washes away food particles, helping to keep your teeth clean.

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The American Dental Association (ADA) recognizes that sugar-free gum indeed helps to prevent tooth decay, especially after eating, but not all sugar-free gum is created equal.

In order to have a sweet flavor, sugar-free gum has to be sweetened without the use of sugar. While there are several artificial sweeteners on the market, some of the most common are xylitol, aspartame, and sorbitol.

Aspartame is a controversial artificial sweetener and you may have heard that some soda companies removed it from their diet sodas because of the controversy. The evidence that links aspartame to obesity and cancer is spotty and inconclusive even though it has received a lot of attention. If that uncertainty makes you uncomfortable, steer clear of aspartame and look for a sugar-free gum that uses a different sweetener.

Xylitol is a naturally occurring sweetener found in plants and unlike aspartame, the research on xylitol shows that it can help prevent tooth decay and help with dry mouth. The US Food and Drug Administration and the European Union have both officially recognized the benefits of xylitol for oral health. When you chew a gum sweetened with xylitol, the types of bacteria in the mouth change over time and fewer decay-causing bacteria are able to survive on tooth surfaces.

Chewing sugar-free gum can be helpful for your oral health but there are some people that should avoid chewing gum of any kind.

If you suffer from any type of jaw pain, TMD, or TMJ, you should avoid chewing gum and ask your dentist about what options are available to you. Chewing sugar-free gum after eating (especially gum sweetened with xylitol) can be a good preventive measure when you’re out and toothbrushing and flossing aren’t practical, but chewing gum should never be used to replace good dental hygiene practices.