NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Gummy bears containing a sugar substitute called xylitol seem to reduce cavity-causing bacteria on young children’s teeth suggesting, researchers say, that candy could be turned into a weapon against tooth decay.

Xylitol is a natural sweetener found in various berries, corn, birch and other plant sources. Research has shown that the sugar substitute reduces levels of mutans streptococci (MS) bacteria, which are known to cause cavities.

This is because xylitol differs from others sugars, like table sugar and glucose, which MS bacteria use for energy. MS bacteria “take in” xylitol, but can not break it down to use for fuel, explained lead investigator Dr. Kiet A. Ly of the University of Washington in Seattle.

“So in the process of trying to break down xylitol, they expend energy and don’t get any in return,” Ly told Reuters Health. “That reduces their ability to reproduce and multiply and leads to a reduction in number.”

Xylitol-containing chewing gum is available, but it’s not considered suitable for young children. So Ly and his colleagues tested the effects of xylitol-sweetened gummy bears in 154 elementary school children.

Each child was given four gummy bears, three times per day, during school hours. Some children received xylitol-containing gummy bears, while the rest were given candies sweetened with maltitol, another sugar substitute.

At the beginning of the study and six weeks later, the researchers measured the amount of bacteria in plaque samples from the children’s teeth.

In the end, both the xylitol and maltitol gummy bears reduced levels of MS bacteria in the children’s mouths, the researchers report in the online journal BMC Oral Health.