Most of us would name calcium as the main ingredient of milk necessary for good, strong teeth. While calcium is important for maintaining bone and dental health, the protein lactoferrin could help with keeping teeth free of bacteria.

Lactoferrin is a protein found in cow milk, human milk, and body fluids such as saliva. When bacteria enter the periodontium (the tissue surrounding teeth), lactoferrin becomes the major player of an immune response to prevent infection.

The lactoferrin protein binds to iron, the mineral necessary for bacterial growth and survival in the periodontium. Sequestering iron decreases an individual’s risk of developing periodontitis (inflammation of the gums).

Lactoferrin can also counter damage from reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are oxygen molecules that bind with other elements to form toxic compounds. When ROS damage iron-containing proteins, iron roams freely for invading bacteria to use. Lactoferrin binds to this iron so that bacteria can’t use it for survival.

ROS themselves may be able to destroy periodontal tissue without the help of bacteria. If lactoferrin binds to iron before the mineral converts ROS to a toxic form, then ROS might be less likely to hurt gums.

Another natural defense mechanism is serum ferritin which increases during an immune response. Ferritin will move iron from blood plasma to cells so that the mineral is not available to bacteria.

If you happen to be lactose intolerant, green tea might provide some of the same benefits. Research shows that the polyphenols in green tea also bind to iron so that ROS don’t become harmful.