Five out of five dentists agree: Sugar-free gum is way less harsh on your mouth than sugar-packed gum or breath mints. Rather than coating your teeth and gums with more sugar for bad breath, causing bacteria to feast on your chompers, sugar-free varieties help churn up saliva and free food particles from the crevices between your teeth and along the gum line.
The only problem is that most sugar-free gums aren't as sweet as they're cracked up to be. In lieu of sugar, they're packed with artificial zero-calorie sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharine, which, in high doses, have been linked to metabolic damage, increased diabetes risk, and even heart disease. Acesulfame potassium, another no-cal sugar alternative often used in gum, can cause cell damage in large doses, according to Kantha Shelke, a food scientist and principal at food science and research firm Corvus Blue.
Beyond artificial sweeteners, many sugar-free gums also include the preservatives butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), which Shelke says have toxic and carcinogenic effects on humans.
If you chew the occasional sugar-free stick after an oniony lunch or before a hot date, don't sweat it too much. But if you're one of those guys who chomps nonstop – certainly if you're anywhere near a pack-a-day habit – it adds up to a lot of artificial garbage. Even though you don't swallow gum as you do food, you still ingest whatever ingredients come with the wad. "While chewing a piece of gum, you swallow your saliva several times," Shelke says. "That saliva is a solution of all of the soluble ingredients in the gum."
The good news is that there's a new crop of better, more healthful sugar-free gums that shun all the synthetic junk and are instead sweetened with xylitol, an all-natural sugar alcohol. Xylitol not only acts as an antimicrobial to stop bacteria growth, but also satisfies sugar cravings and doesn't break down into teeth-eroding acids, says Dr. Jae Hyeong Pak of New York Center for Cosmetic Dentistry.
But don't buy just any gum that lists xylitol on the label. A lot of conventional brands are jumping on the bandwagon and adding a dash of xylitol to their gums – but that's on top of, not instead of, the synthetic sweeteners. You want a gum that has 100 percent xylitol, meaning that's the only sweetener used in the gum.
We got busy chewing to find the best tasting, breath-freshening, and plaque-busting xylitol gums. Unfortunately, it's still too soon to find many of these gums at the gas station or supermarket. But pop into any health food store or shop online, and you'll find our five favorites.