Are sugar-free confections really beneficial for dental health?

British Dental Journal 211, E15 (2011)
Published online: 7 October 2011 | doi:10.1038/sj.bdj.2011.823

  • Sugar-free does not mean calorie-free. Some sugar-free products generate nearly 50% of calories produced by table sugar.
  • In general, sugar-free products may help prevent dental caries. However, if they contain acidic additives, it may increase the probability of demineralising enamel, thus causing dental erosion.
  • Avoiding acid-containing, usually fruit-flavoured sugar-free products may be beneficial.
Background Various sugar substitutes have been introduced and are widely used in confections and beverages to avoid tooth decay from sugar and other fermentable carbohydrates. One group of sugar substitutes are sugar alcohols or polyols. They have been specifically used in foods for diabetic patients because polyols are not readily absorbed in the intestine and blood stream, preventing post-prandial elevation of glucose level. Additionally they may lower caloric intake.
Methods We searched PubMed, Cochrane Controlled Trials Registry, Cochrane Oral Health Review, Centre for Reviews and Dissemination in the UK, National Library for Public Health and a Centre for Evidence Based Dentistry website up to the end of October 2010, using the search terms 'sugar alcohol' or 'sugar-free' or 'polyols' and combined with a search with terms 'dental caries' or 'dental erosion'.
Results Xylitol, a polyol, has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for its non-cariogenic properties that actually reduce the risk of dental decay and recently, the European Union also officially approved a health claim about xylitol as a 'tooth friendly' component in chewing gums. Although the presence of acidic flavourings and preservatives in sugar-free products has received less attention, these additives may have adverse dental health effects, such as dental erosion. Furthermore, the term sugar-free may generate false security because people may automatically believe that sugar-free products are safe on teeth.
Conclusion We concluded that polyol-based sugar-free products may decrease dental caries incidence but they may bring another dental health risk, dental erosion, if they contain acidic flavouring. There is a need for properly conducted clinical studies in this area.


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