According to research published in Immunity, chewing food stimulates the release of T helper 17 (Th17) cells in the mouth. Th17 cells can help the immune system protect against harmful pathogens while preserving helpful bacteria, Medical News Today reports.

The researchers came to their findings by feeding weaning mice soft-textured foods, which required less chewing, until they reached 24 weeks of age. At 24 weeks, the release of Th17 cells in the rodents’ mouths was measured.

A significant reduction in oral Th17 cell production was noted, which the team speculated was down to a reduction in mastication-induced physiological damage.

Confirming their theory, the researchers found that increasing the levels of physiological damage in the rodents’ mouths — by rubbing the oral cavity with a sterile cotton applicator — led to an increase in the production of Th17 cells.