3: SWEET TEETH

Dental hygienists are finding something to smile about in the checkout aisle lately, and for once, it has nothing to do with whiter teeth. Xylitol, an all-natural, diabetic-friendly sweetener derived from birch trees, corn husks and other plant sources, is proving remarkably effective at fighting cavities and periodontal disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently began allowing a limited

Dental hygienists are finding something to smile about in the checkout aisle lately, and for once, it has nothing to do with whiter teeth.

Xylitol, an all-natural, diabetic-friendly sweetener derived from birch trees, corn husks and other plant sources, is proving remarkably effective at fighting cavities and periodontal disease. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently began allowing a limited health claim about these benefits, and a handful of brands, such as Trident gums, have begun highlighting xylitol content on their packaging.

The bacteria that cause plaque and tooth decay consume xylitol as if it were a regular sugar, but they cannot process it, thus preventing the fermentation process that leads to cavities, explained Noel Kelsch, vice president of the California Dental Hygienists Association.

“If you regularly use products that contain xylitol for a period of time, they will actually change the flora of your mouth so that the environment is unfavorable to the types of bacteria that cause dental caries and periodontal disease,” she said.

Kelsch and the CDHA have launched a public awareness campaign to explain these benefits, and they're encouraging their patients to try products such as Altoids cinnamon- and peppermint-flavored gums, Carefree Koolerz, Hershey's Ice Breakers, Tic Tac Silvers, several new Trident gum flavors and toothpastes such as Tom's of Maine or Crest Multi-Care, particularly around holidays when lots of sugary foods and candies are consumed.

Several smaller brands such as Spry, Squigle, Clen Dent and Xylifloss have also emerged, offering candies, lozenges, mouthwash and oral care products, all sweetened with xylitol, for sale over the Internet. Even xylitol-based nasal sprays are available, after several small studies indicated the sugar alcohol may also inhibit the growth of bacteria that cause earaches and sinus infections.

Kelsch, however, said she prefers recommending the less-expensive, easier-to-find items. Consuming more than you'd get in a few sticks of xylitol-sweetened gum per day doesn't appear to produce any additional benefit, she said, and it's better for patients to form an inexpensive habit than to splurge on something they'll try only once.

“It's a very simple thing that could change a lot of children's and adults' lives,” she said.