Gum and candy aren’t allowed inside the carpeted classrooms at Stanley Elementary School.
But every morning and afternoon, third-graders in Dorothy Gray’s class line up and stick out tiny cupped hands for their daily dose of gum and mints.
These aren’t just any gum and mints. They’re made from 100 percent xylitol — a natural sugar from the birch tree that independent medical studies have shown hinders tooth decay and even reduces the chance of ear infections.
“They’re ecstatic,” Gray said of her students. “They’re extremely proud that they’re probably the only class in the United States using this.”
And the kids say they love it.
“It’s good for your teeth, and it tastes really good,” said 9-year-old Cody McKee. “The mints taste like peppermint, and the gum tastes like mixed-up fruit.”
The class began using the gum and mints at the beginning of November as part of the Xylitol Health Project to raise awareness about the merits of xylitol. They’ll continue through the end of the school year. Xylitol was discovered in Finland during World War II when sugar was scarce, and it’s been researched there ever since. Its benefits are becoming more widely known thanks to articles in medical journals and distribution in health food stores.
Gray developed the project with the help of June Allen, the wife of retired Wichita pathologist Phillip Allen. The couple — who are both interested in children’s health issues — have a nonprofit partnership called Enviro-Health Concerns and have been researching and communicating with xylitol scholars as part of a study. The Allens agreed to pay for the gum and mints — which cost about a dime a day per child.
Gray sent letters home to parents about the project, and none of them responded with objections. Stanley’s principal, Anita Allard, approved the project easily because her dentist recently recommended using xylitol.
When the second semester of school begins, a first-grade class at Stanley will begin using xylitol gum and mints, too.
Gray hopes teachers throughout the district give xylitol a try in their classrooms. And the Allens hope other funding sources will be found so teachers don’t have to pay for it out of their pockets, like they often do when they want to try something new in the classroom.
Each morning at 9 a.m., the students take a swig of water and “swish and swallow” to get food particles out of their teeth. Then they suck on the mint for as long as they can — the record is 90 minutes, Gray said.
After lunch, the students “swish and swallow” again and then chew a piece of xylitol gum for an hour. They have to spit it out before going to another classroom.
They keep a daily record of their use and even recite songs they’ve memorized about xylitol’s benefits.
“I really like to chew the gum because we’re the only class to do it so far,” said Tia Brown, 8.