Doc Wants Chewing Gum to be Part of K-12 Curriculum

chewing gum, oral health
Chew on this: gum is good for you.

Some school rules have stood the test of time: no running in the hallways, no name-calling, no chewing gum. But that last one is a relic, New York Times OpEd contributor Ezekiel J. Emanuel wrote recently, and a full-on reversal could do no less than drastically improve the oral health of millions of kids.

Gum is so good for teeth, in fact, Emanuel thinks schools should not only tolerate it, but hand out sticks of it three times a day, every day. The underside of desks be damned!

Here’s the deal: the mouth contains a lot of different bacteria, including streptococcus mutans, the main bacteria responsible for cavities. When bacteria encounters sugar, Emanuel explains, it reacts to produce acid. Saliva can neutralize the acid unless the amount of sugar in the mouth is really overwhelming. Acid works away at the teeth leaving them exposed to cavities.

An increase in saliva production ensures acid neutralization and this is where gum comes in — especially sugar-free gum that contains xylitol, a natural sweetener that doesn’t turn to acid when it encounters bacteria. In fact, more saliva and less acid can actually reverse early-stage cavities, according to Emanuel.

None of this is new information, it’s just information that hasn’t made it to the right people and institutions. A study in Finland in the 1980s found that kids who chewed gum with xylitol had 60 percent fewer cavities than those who didn’t chew the gum. Another study in the ’90s in Belize found found even better results.

So why schools? Because, believe it or not, the condition of children’s teeth affects learning (and outcomes). Here’s what Emanuel says:

Approximately 17 million children in this country do not get basic dental care. More than 50 million hours of school are missed every year because of dental problems, not to mention those lost because of ear infections. This is an easy, cost effective solution. Gums with significant amounts of xylitol include Xylichew, Xyloburst and Hershey’s Ice Breakers Ice Cube gum — which can usually can be found in any deli or drugstore.

But the best way to ensure that all children take advantage of xylitol gum is to have them chew it in school, in kindergarten and beyond. Ideally, they would chew gum three to five times a day for five minutes each time. Not only will it improve their health and school attendance; but they might actually enjoy it.

I can see where school administrators are reading this with agony. Why? Why us? All that gum scraped from the bottom of trash cans and desks every summer multiplied by hundreds and hundreds!

Still, I like the idea that something pretty simple and inexpensive is just right there ready to fix a problem, in this case, teeth that could eventually require expensive fixes.