Licorice lollipops keep teeth jolly

March 21, 2012

Sugar-free lollipops containing licorice root extract significantly reduced the bacteria that causes tooth decay, specifically among pre-school children with high-risk of tooth decay, according to a recent study published in the European Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

Sugar-free lollipops containing licorice root extract significantly reduced the bacteria that causes tooth decay, specifically among pre-school children with high-risk of tooth decay, according to a recent study published in the European Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

The study, funded by the Research and Data Institute of the affiliated companies of Delta Dental of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, New Mexico and North Carolina, analyzed 66 preschool students ages 2 to 5 enrolled in a Head Start Program in Lansing, Mich. For three weeks, each student received an orange-flavored, sugarless lollipop for 10 minutes, twice daily. 

Researchers said they were motivated to conduct the survey by the high number of children who face dental decay and cavities. According to Jed Jacobson D.D.S., M.S., M.P.H., chief science officer at Delta Dental, dental decay is one of the most common childhood diseases, with more than half of children ages 5 to 17 having had at least one cavity or filling.

"We are working to find simple, effective regimens that will encourage prevention and control of dental disease,” he said.

Study results showed a significant reduction in Streptococcus mutans (S. mutans), the primary bacteria responsible for tooth decay, during the three-week period when the lollipops were being used and lasting for an additional 22 days before beginning to rebound.

Using a saliva test, the amount of S. mutans in the patient's mouth was measured before and during the three-week period where lollipops were used, as well as for several weeks thereafter.

Jacobson said that while children identified as being at high, moderate and low risk participated in the study, the most significant drop in S. mutans was among those children at high risk. 

“If there are more S. mutans [in a child’s mouth], then it’s going to have a greater reduction because there are more to kill,” Jacobson said.

Licorice root was used in the study because it has already been identified in lab settings as effective at fighting the S. mutans, and as an old Chinese herbal extract, it’s a natural flavor used for sweetening, Jacobson said.

Teresa Spitzer, R.N., Health Programs Manager for Capital Community Head Start Inc., said her organization was excited to be part of the study.

"Staff and parents were intrigued by something as simple as a special lollipop having the ability to decrease the incidence of dental caries in children,” she said. “The outcomes only reinforced the value the parents placed on the project."

Though more research is needed, Jacobson said the children liked the taste of the lollipops, and he could envision them being used to supplement other oral healthcare hygiene habits, such as brushing teeth and flossing.

“Children don’t exactly rush to brush their teeth at night and in the morning,” he said. “This could help get around those behavioral hurdles.”

The next step that Jacobsen said he would like to see is further research to confirm or disprove the results.

“We’re publishing and promoting this study in hopes that other scientists will continue and expand on this pilot,” he said.

The lollipops, manufactured by Dr. John's Candies of Grand Rapids, Mich., were developed using FDA-approved materials by Dr. Wenyuan Shi, a microbiologist at the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA), and C3 Jian, Inc., a research and development company in California.

There are approximately 700 types of bacteria in the human mouth. While most are harmless, S. mutans is considered the primary culprit in tooth decay. They live in a biofilm (plaque) that adheres to the teeth, consume sugar and release acid that erodes tooth enamel, causing decay. Regular brushing and flossing, along with dental checkups, can help keep S. mutans and Lactobacillus casei in check.