Xylitol is sweet, but it differs in two key ways from the stuff we have on the table. Although it’s composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, like table sugar, its molecular structure is different. As a result, it’s as sweet as regular sugar but has only 40% of the calories. More importantly for oral health is the role of xylitol in reducing plaque, tooth decay, and cavities.


The reason for this is simple. The bacteria that cause plaque and decay (Mutans streptococci ) can’t digest xylitol. They get no nourishment from it. Moreover, they sort of go crazy trying to (it “tastes” like sugar to them, too!) and so die young! Not only that but before these bacteria die, their ability to stick to our teeth is weakened. In addition,  their output of enamel-destroying acid shrinks. Xylitol not only doesn’t promote tooth decay, it acts to prevent it.

That’s why the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD)  “…recognizes the benefits of caries preventive strategies involving sugar substitutes, particularly xylitol…”. It works. And it’s safe. For people, that is. If you have a dog, be aware that xylitol is toxic to these animals.


Xylitol is not an artificial sweetener. A number of trees, fruits, and vegetables produce it. In fact, we humans do, too, as we use sugars for energy. A German chemist discovered xylitol back in 1891. The FDA approved it as a food additive in 1963. It’s been in foods and sweets since around 1970.  It’s now commonly added to oral hygiene products.


Research has shown that xylitol helps with reducing cavities. Especially in children. Most especially with newly-erupting teeth. For best results, we need to expose teeth to xylitol daily for 1 -3 years. The positive effect then lingers for as long as five years after stopping xylitol. The effective daily dose is in the range of 3 -8 grams, with two exposures each day. Chewing gum is a popular way to deliver the goods. What kid says no to gum? However, pediatricians warn that kids younger than 4 are at risk for choking on gum. Xylitol syrups are a great alternative for these younger kids.

Xylitol is a welcome partner in a total program of oral hygiene for children. Fluoride, brushing, flossing, good diet, and regular dental checkups round out the stack. If you’re interested in xylitol, discuss it in detail with your pediatric dentist.  Dr. Popper can recommend products and advise on safety and effectiveness.



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