Add vinegar to baking soda and the ensuing reaction is explosive. As the alkaline baking soda comes in contact with the acidic vinegar, a chemical reaction occurs that swiftly releases the stored energy of the chemicals in the form of tiny bubbles. The liquid left from the reaction is no longer acidic like the vinegar was; it has a neutral pH. A school project volcano is born.
The Balancing (Re)action
It may be hard to believe, but an acid/base reaction like vinegar and baking soda can occur in your mouth every day. The healthy, natural state of your mouth is slightly alkaline. Your saliva works to keep your mouth at a neutral or slightly alkaline pH. Eating introduces acids into the oral environment in two primary ways. The first way eating can make your mouth more acidic is probably the first way that comes to mind—if you eat or drink things naturally containing acids, it will push the pH levels of your mouth down, causing acidic conditions. The second way eating and drinking makes your mouth more acidic may surprise you. The bacteria in your mouth feed on simple starches and sugars in your foods, making acid as a by-product of this digestion.
Acid dissolves minerals out of the tooth enamel, so it’s important to use a neutralizing agent to prevent it from doing damage. The more often you eat (or drink anything other than plain water), the more often you will need to neutralize acidic conditions in your mouth. Saliva is the body’s natural method to raise oral pH back to normal levels, but frequent eating can overwhelm this natural defense mechanism. Sometimes, it’s necessary or beneficial to help the body raise oral pH more quickly. While the previously mentioned baking soda could be used to raise oral pH, most people do not enjoy the taste of baking soda. Luckily, there’s a much better tasting substance that can do the work—xylitol.
Xylitol is a naturally occurring, sweet tasting substance found in several types of plants. Commercial xylitol is most often extracted from corn or birch. When used to sweeten chewing gum or as an appropriate sweetener for oral rinses, it provides several remarkable benefits for oral health, including helping correct pH.
Without the Fireworks
Xylitol does not correct pH explosively like baking soda does with vinegar. Instead, it acts on the bacteria that make the acids in the oral environment. Oral bacteria cannot use xylitol for energy. However, it is sweet and looks like a sugar, so they will consume it like normal foods. Once full of xylitol, the bacteria starve to death. While they are starving to death, xylitol also interferes with some of the bacteria’s normal activity. Specifically, xylitol prevents the bacteria that consume it from producing acids. The bacteria stop producing enamel damaging acid, and the oral pH has a chance to rebound.
Because xylitol is frequently used in gum, it has a second method of helping oral pH. Chewing gum stimulates saliva. Saliva is the body’s natural mechanism to raise oral pH and the tooth’s great protective fluid. Adding xylitol to gum makes it more efficient at doing that. By helping your body make more saliva, xylitol chewing can counteract the damaging effects of dry mouth and raise oral pH to save levels.
So, why do you care about oral pH? Because you don’t like cavities.
Low pH dissolves minerals out of tooth enamel, allowing cavities to form. The bacteria that cause cavities thrive in low pH environments and manufacture acids, keeping the oral environment at a unhealthy, low pH level. Xylitol has been studied and shown to help maintain healthy oral environments and help prevent and help treat dental caries.