Dental caries is a diet-associated disease which continues to be a serious health problem in most industrialized and developing countries. Strategies to maximize caries prevention should automatically consider the use of sugar substitutes. It is important that public health authorities are made cognizant of the availability of new polyol-type sugar substitutes.
Clinical studies have shown that xylitol, a natural, physiologic sugar alcohol of the pentitol type, can be used as a safe and effective caries-limiting sweetener. Habitual use of xylitol-containing food and oral hygiene adjuvants has been shown to reduce the growth of dental plaque, to interfere with the growth of caries-associated bacteria, to decrease the incidence of dental caries, and to be associated with remineralization of caries lesions. Numerous public regulatory bodies have endorsed the use of xylitol as a caries-limiting agent. Other sugar alcohols that have been successfully used as sugar substitutes include D-glucitol (sorbitol), which, however, owing to its hexitol nature, normally has no strong effect on the mass and adhesiveness of bacterial plaque and on the growth of mutans streptococci. A tetritol-type alditol, erythritol, has shown potential as a non-cariogenic sugar substitute. Combinations of xylitol and erythritol may reduce the incidence of caries more effectively than either alditol alone.
Partial sugar substitution with polyols is an important dietary tool in the prevention of dental caries that should be used to enhance existing fluoride-based caries prevention programmes. The most effective method of conveying this information to the public is through a proper health claim for these alditols in food labelling. The present review summarizes clinical and biochemical aspects of the above three dietary polyols and emphasizes the role of sugar substitution as a potential health-promoting strategy.