Deciding on whether or not chewing gum is good or bad for kids leaves parents and doctors in a sticky situation! With hundreds of chewing gum products on the market, the bottom line is that sugar isn’t good for your teeth. However, that doesn’t mean that ALL gum is bad! There are some pros and cons of chewing gum and how it can effect your oral health.
What is Gum?
The oldest chewing gum, found in Sweden, is believed to be 9,000 years old! Over the centuries, gum has been made of tree sap from the mastic tree (Mastiche), sapodilla tree (tsiclte), even spruce. Today, while recipes between gum brands vary, (and most keep their exact recipes top secret), you can be assured that gum is made of the following basic ingredients:
- Gum: The rubbery base that gives gum its chewy quality.
- Resin: Strengthens gum and holds it together.
- Fillers: Fillers give gum its texture.
- Softeners: Used to retain moisture and prevent the gum from hardening.
- Preservatives: These extend a product’s shelf life.
- Flavorings: Gives gum its desired flavor.
- Sweeteners: Popular ones include cane sugar, beet sugar and corn syrup. Sugar-free gums use sugar alcohols like xylitol or artificial sweeteners like aspartame.
All ingredients used must be “food grade” and classified as fit for human consumption.
What age can Kids Chew Gum?
Keep in mind, gum is a candy that’s meant to be ‘chewed’, not swallowed. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that gum not be given to kids that can’t fully comprehend that it should be chewed, then spit out. Several case studies, highlighting 4 year olds, found that repeatedly swallowing gum can cause problems including diarrhea, abdominal pain, gas, mouth ulcers, and dental and jaw problems. It can also cause choking and block the intestines. So before you give your child gum, make sure they understand to never swallow it!
Did you know: the first stick of bubble gum (considered to be a success) was pink. Why? That was the only color the inventor had to work with!
Sugar-Free Gum options
Once gum became “sugar-free” (i.e. less than 0.5 g of sugar), the rules began to loosen and dentists could take a second look. The sweeteners themselves, such as acesulfame-K, aspartame, neotame, saccharin, sucralose, stevia or sugar alcohols such as erythritol, isomalt, maltitol, mannitol, sorbitol, or xylitol, will provide the sweetness that was previously provided by sugar. These sweeteners are noncariogenic, meaning that the plaque bacteria doesn’t like it and may not even metabolize it. This is a good thing. However, you need to carefully read the gum wrapper labels to see what is Sugar-Free and what is not. To help with this, the American Dental Association has a Seal of Acceptance highlighting the benefits of using a product. This seal has been recognized as the gold standard for evaluating safety and efficacy of dental products. Only chewing gums that are sugar-free will be considered for the ADA Seal. Here’s several Sugar-Free Gums awarded the ADA’s Seal of Acceptance >
Benefits of Chewing Gum
Now that we have taken sugar out of the discussion, we can look at some actual benefits in chewing gum: reducing acid and eliminating bacteria by activating the salivary glands. The physical act of munching on gum, signals your body that it needs to produce saliva to digest it. Saliva is pH balanced to prevent your mouth from getting too acidic. The acids are what take away the enamel on your teeth. Saliva also lessens the amount of bacteria in the mouth, acting as the body’s natural mouthwash. However, don’t think for a moment that the act of chewing gum will replace proper brushing or flossing! It may help when you can’t brush or floss immediately after a meal, but it is not a substitute! Teeth still need to get brushed and flossed multiple times a day to maintain good oral hygiene.