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You sit down for a meal. Appetizer, salad, main course, and perhaps a dessert. Maybe a stick of gum?

Even if you decide to skip on the dessert, the gum is probably a good call.

That’s because for almost 40 years now, studies have been reaffirming the value of chewing gum in relation to positive oral, and by extension, general health, so much so, that the American Dental Association is one of more than 20 major national dental oversight bodies to join the FDI World Dental Federation in promoting the now-certified hard-science fact: regularly chewing gum strengthens teeth, fights the buildup of plaque and prevents the erosion of enamel.

LA Dentist On Chewing Gum Health

How can something many people treat as a kind of guilty pleasure be so beneficial?

The answer, in a word, is “saliva.”

For the first few minutes after you start chewing it, gum increases the production of saliva in your mouth to 10 times basal levels. Levels remain high for as long as you keep chomping, and will stay that way even after you’ve spit it out (hopefully in a trash can. No amount of oral hygiene benefits will make gum any less annoying to step in).

The act of chewing itself has various benefits we’ll discuss in a second, but saliva does more than any synthetic product you can buy in a drug to keep your mouth healthy. It’s your mouth’s very own repairman, janitor, and security team, wrapped into one.

After you’re done with a meal, the bacteria in your mouth begins to ferment any remaining food particles trapped between your gum and teeth. The acid byproduct from these reactions lowers the pH balance in your mouth, and once it gets past a certain point, the acid begins to dissolve the carbonated hydroxyapatite that forms the base of your teeth’s protective enamel layer. Holes — called demineralized subsurface lesions, or “white spots” — begin to form in your teeth over time, where plaque builds up and forms cavities.

Now, saliva is designed specifically to handle this process. Enzymes like salivary amylase dissolve carbohydrates lodged in too tightly to be washed out by the water itself. Anti-bacterial agents in the secretion limit the growth of bacteria colonies. And Hydroxyl, calcium and phosphate ions remineralize enamel, reversing the erosion process, while bicarbonates and water neutralizes and dilutes pH levels, respectively.

The problem is that, especially given the high sugar content in the modern diet, there often simply isn’t enough saliva to get the job done. Additionally, sodas, citrusy fruit juices and alcohol — all regular features come mealtime — bring pH levels down before the bacteria even start working. And that’s where gum comes in.

By boosting saliva production, gum helps the body go about its regular business, keeping your mouth healthy and strong. But the benefits don’t stop there. Gum chewing itself does things that saliva alone can’t.

The mechanical act of chewing, for example, frees food particles that would otherwise remain stuck in the mouth. Gum can also act as a sort of scrub, slowing the staining of teeth and breaking up plaque. Chewing gum has also been shown to relax the jaw, which can help people with nasty grinding habits avoid destroying their teeth.

Now, gum with sugar in it almost defeats the purpose entirely. But the polynols used in sweeteners in any sugarfree gum cannot be metabolized by bacteria in the gums, and are therefore safe to chew. When included in sufficient levels — 1 gram per piece of gum is ideal — xylinol can even work wonders of its own. Studies show as high as 60% cavity reductions in children who regularly chew xylinol-infused gum, the only kind clinically proven to actively combat plaque.

Unfortunately, most over-the counter brands do not have sufficient levels of xylinol to make a difference. (Beware: if it isn’t the first ingredient listed, it is almost definitely not going to get the extra job done. Brands that will include Epic Xylitol Gum, ElimiTaste Zapp, Xyloburst Gum, Branam Xylitol Gum, Xyla Gum, Dr. John’s Fruit Gum, Biogenesis Fruit Gum, all of which can be ordered online.) But regular sugar-free gum products will do just fine.

Studies recommend chewing anywhere from 3-5 times a day at 20-minute intervals. The 20 minutes immediately following a meal is the crucial window, as that is when bacteria are most active. Much longer than that carries the risk of jaw problems. But other than that, get to chewing!