How Clean is your Mouth?

Granted, asking people, “How clean is your mouth?” really does not make for a good icebreaker at a dinner party, and in fact, depending on who you talk to, it might even be interpreted as an indirect insult. And yet, oral hygiene is incredibly relevant to the overall health performance.

Top on the list of where our minds go when asked whether we practice oral hygiene, is our teeth. Fortunately, throughout history, humans have started to understand the importance of regularly brushing their teeth, even though even in the developed world, that is not at peak performance yet: 30% of Americans do not brush their teeth twice a day. Since this blog post is not an appeal to brush your teeth (even though you should), what else can you do to keep your mouth clean other than brushing your teeth and using a tongue scraper?

Fascinatingly, the answer to that question will not require you to buy a new device or add a complicated exercise routine to your morning. In fact, chances are you are doing it as we speak: chewing gum.

While gum might be seen as merely a sweet confectionery for people who prefer chewing on a sugar-free pineapple-tasting gum rather than gulping down a chocolate bar (which is arguably the correct thing to do), it has incredible benefits for oral hygiene. According to the American Dental Association, sugar-free chewing gum helps reduce tooth decay. They write:

“The physical act of chewing stimulates salivary flow: simply chewing unsweetened, unflavored chewing gum base stimulates the salivary flow rate by 10-12 times that of the unstimulated rate.7 Flavors also act as salivary stimulants.6 The stimulated salivary flow rate is significantly greater while chewing sweetened and flavored gum as opposed to unsweetened, unflavored chewing gum base.7, 8 Increasing saliva volume helps to dilute and neutralize acids produced by the bacteria in plaque on teeth. Over time, these acids can damage tooth enamel, potentially resulting in decay.”

For a healthy mouth, you want to maintain a neutral pH between 5.6 and 7.9. Once the mouth pH hits 5.5 or lower, teeth begin to demineralize, and you risk developing a cavity. Sugars and acidic food promote the bacteria, causing tooth decay if left unbalanced for too long. The good thing is that chewing gum is proven to increase the pH levels immediately on stimulation, but even after a post-chewing dropoff, levels remained above the pH level of unstimulated saliva, as laid out by this study.

Another study looked at the precise impact of chewing gum on individuals with dry mouth and found that “the results show that chewing a flavored sugarless gum significantly increases salivary flow rates in individuals with dry mouth. Additionally, chewing the sorbitol-sweetened gum effectively prevents the fall in cemental plaque pH, generally seen in response to a sucrose challenge. This indicates that chewing a sorbitol-sweetened gum provides a palliative and possibly a protective benefit for people who suffer from dry mouth.”

Overall, a very large amount of studies that looked at the effects of sugar-free chewing gum found that salivary stimulation is an important factor in increasing pH levels, washing away bacteria, and reducing plaque. Obviously, this could mean chewing just about anything, but of course, we wouldn’t want to see ourselves just eating all day in order to keep the chewing motion going. That is precisely why chewing gum is an affordable and accessible way for consumers to watch their oral hygiene.

Bill Wirtz is the Senior Policy Analyst at the Consumer Choice Center.