From a young age, we’re told time and again chewing gum can lead to cavities and poor oral health. However, a stick of gum can actually promote good dental hygiene in the same way as brushing your teeth twice a day and flossing regularly. According to a recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE, chewing gum for up to 10 minutes can remove 100 million bacteria, or 10 percent of the microbial load in saliva.

Chewing gum, for many people, is a vicious habit. High consumption rates for gum include an average of 280 sticks of gum per person per year in the billion-dollar industry, which contributes to the maintenance of oral health.

Typically, in most commercial gums, the gum-base is supplemented with sweeteners, flavors, and other agents. However, sugar is now often replaced by artificial sweeteners such as sorbitol, xylitol, or mannitol. The addition of xylitol and its sugarless companions have been found to reduce the formation of oral biofilms — cause of infectious diseases such as cavities and periodontal disease — on teeth, according to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Dental Research.

Chewing gum has also been found to have effects on cognitive performance, mood, alertness, and appetite control, but its role in oral care has rarely been touched upon. To investigate, a team of researchers from University of Groningen in the Netherlands sought to observe whether chewing gum can remove bacteria from the oral cavity. Five biomedical engineering students were recruited to chew two different standard types of spearmint gum for various lengths of time ranging from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. Afterward, the gum was spit into a cup filled with sterile water to be analyzed.

The findings revealed there were about 100 million bacteria detected on each piece of chewed up gum, with the number increasing as chewing time increased. However, after 30 seconds of chewing, the gum starts to lose its adhesiveness, meaning it traps fewer bacteria overall. “Trapped bacteria were clearly visualized in chewed gum using scanning-electron-microscopy,” wrote the researchers in their paper.

Manufacturers are deliberately adding more active agents to gum to enhance its ability to remineralize teeth and reduce decay, or enable gum to help reduce plaque and gingivitis. For example, fluorides, antimicrobials like chlorhexidine and herbal extracts, and detergents like polyphosphates have been added to gums to increase its cleaning power. This study may help the researchers develop a gum that selectively removes specific disease-related bacteria from mouths.

Gum could possibly be just as effective as flossing, even though they each target different areas of the mouth. Chewing gum does not remove bacteria from the same places of the dentition as does brushing or flossing. The findings place more emphasis on gum’s long-term effect than the immediate effects of brushing or flossing.

The American Dental Association warns this does not mean chewing gum is an adjunct to brushing and flossing, nor a substitute. Brushing twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste and cleaning plaque from between your teeth once a day with either dental floss or other dental cleaners is recommended.

If you’ve got a dirty mouth, chew on this for a good clean feeling, no matter what.

Sources: Busscher HJ, Maitra A, Monrando D et al. Quantification and Qualification of Bacteria Trapped in Chewed Gum. PLOS ONE. 2015.

Ly KA, Milgrom P, Mueller G. Mutans streptococci dose response to xylitol chewing gum. J Dent Res. 2006.