Gummy Bears Help Fight Kids' Cavities

In October 2007, 14,000 pounds of gummy bears were delivered to Suchitra Nelson. Nelson doesn’t have the world’s largest sweet tooth: She’s in charge of a school-based oral health program called Healthy Bears for Healthy Teeth.

Active in five schools in East Cleveland, the program is testing to see if gummy bears containing a sweetener called xylitol can reduce cavities in 5- to 8-year-olds.

A new kind of gummy bear, sweetened with the natural ingredient xylitol, is being tested to see if the treats can reduce cavities by fighting bacteria.

A new kind of gummy bear, sweetened with the natural ingredient xylitol, is being tested to see if the treats can reduce cavities by fighting bacteria.

Xylitol is a natural sweetener found in the bark of some trees. It looks and tastes similar to sugar, but kills the bacteria that cause tooth decay. The sweetener is already found in many gums and mints, but Nelson had a California company make gummy bears for the study.

“The children are quite young and we wanted to have something that would appeal to them,” explains Nelson, associate professor in the Department of Community Dentistry at Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine.

During the 2007-2008 school year, 200 kindergartners were given two gummy bears three times a day. Some children got xylitol gummy bears; others received organic fiber gummy bears. The children didn’t know which type of bear they were getting; neither did Nelson.

During the 2008-2009 school year, she is recruiting 300 more kindergartners. Both groups will be given gummy bears through the end of second grade. Then, Nelson and her colleagues will look to see if the xylitol gummy bears helped prevent cavities.

The study also is providing toothbrushes, toothpaste, fluoride treatments, sealants, and oral health education. Nelson hopes that one day, studies like this one will make xylitol part of the standard of preventive care in dentistry.

“In Finland, they routinely recommend that people use xylitol,” she says. “We’d like to see that happen here.”