My mom always told me that sugar would rot my teeth. But after a recent scolding by my dentist for brushing too hard (how else am I supposed to get all the sugar off?), I was inspired to look a little deeper into what’s really harmful to my teeth—and I learned that there’s a lot more than sugar to watch out for. From foods that encourage tooth decay to habits that wear away gums, there’s more to maintaining our smile than a simple brush and floss.
Crackers, Breadsticks, and Chips
Just what we needed—another reason to feel bread aisle-guilt. But unlike low-carb diets, there’s some real science behind this.
Not all digestion happens in the stomach—turns out, a lot of it actually goes down in between our teeth as we’re chewing. It starts with plaque, a sticky, whitish substance that blankets our teeth. When the snack of choice is a bag of chips, or something equally starchy—a cookie, cracker, cereal, even a banana—the bacteria that lives on our teeth starts breaking that plaque down, a process that creates very strong acids. (Foods broken down like this are often referred to as fermentable carbs.) The acids, in turn, can cause demineralization, or the dissolving of tooth enamel. Our mouths keep on producing acid as long as the fermentable carb is in contact with our teeth.
Dentists used to think that this was only a problem for the most sugary of foods, hence the fear tactics my mom used on me with those post-dessert brushing sessions. But advances in nutrition and dental science have shown that all types of sugar and starch, in liquid and solid form, lead to this kind of decay.
“Some studies have even shown the acid-producing potential of these types of foods is equal to what the mouth produces in response to obviously sugary solutions, like a cookie or hot chocolate,” says Karen Hastey, a former dental hygienist and oral surgery assistant. Photo courtesy of slice (cc)
Lemonade, Pineapples, and Oranges
Acidic foods and drinks also initiate a harmful chemical process in the mouth—one that softens tooth enamel and also leads to decay. When it comes to acid, there are the obvious culprits, like lemons (and, hence, lemonade), oranges, pineapples, pickles, and even yogurt, which has a low pH value.
“The acids in these fruits break down in your mouth, which causes the sting or raw spots you might get from eating too much pineapple in one sitting,” says Hastey.
This doesn’t mean we need to laboriously monitor the pH level of our snack choices, but, as a rule, if something tastes a little tart, avoid sucking excessively on it (especially near the front of your mouth) and pop in a piece of sugar free gum afterward to help pull the remaining acid off teeth. Photo courtesy of maesejose (cc)
Yes, it’s just water, but munching on ice cubes can also do a fair amount of damage. Subjecting our molars to those hard cubes is an easy way to develop small fractures in our enamel, cause gum injuries, and even break teeth. (Though it would have to be a really big cube to actually break a tooth.) The tiny fractures, however, are much more common and dangerous when built up over a long period of time—weakening our teeth and making them more susceptible to serious breaks, bacteria, and cavities. So when we’re looking for distraction or stress relief by chewing on the ice at the bottom of a cup, we should consider a piece of sugarless gum or some celery sticks instead. Photo courtesy of Kyle May (cc)
Brushing Too Hard or Too Often
This is what I got in trouble for. Turns out, what I thought was simply an effective cleaning was actually wearing down my tooth enamel and causing gum and cheek damage.
“Since brushing your teeth is a good thing, a lot of people think that more brushing must be even more of a good thing,” says Sue Gwerder, a dental hygienist. “Overly harsh or frequent brushing could make your gums recede and end up making your teeth more sensitive as they wear down.”
If your gums are sore or developing sensitive patches, or you notice them pulling away from your teeth, it’s probably time to invest in a soft bristle toothbrush and abide by the American Dental Association’s two-brush-a-day recommendation. Photo courtesy of oskay (cc)
Soft Drinks, Energy Drinks, Sports Drinks, and Sweetened Iced Tea
Not only is soda the leading source of added sugar in the diets of kids and teens, most soft drinks also contain phosphoric and citric acids, which—seeing a pattern yet?—erode our enamel. Other seemingly innocent liquid culprits include sports drinks, energy drinks, and sugary teas, whose sugar levels make them equally harmful. Photo courtesy of OiMax (cc)
Dried Fruit, Gummy Candy, and Chewy Treats
The timing matters with these sticky foods. Eat ’em too often and we could not only be packing on the pounds, but also preventing our mouths from using their built-in cleaning mechanisms that fight all this decay-inducing food. The American Dental Association advises that we limit between-meal snacks for this very reason.
When we eat those gummy bears as a mid-afternoon snack, acids continue to attack the teeth for twenty to thirty minutes following the last bear. If there are little lingerers hiding between the teeth, or we just keep eating, the healing process can’t keep up, since it will be interrupted by trying to break down whatever’s left in there. It’s only after our mouth has cleared everything out that saliva will start neutralizing the acid and get a rebalancing process going. Having a mouth constantly full of food means it won’t ever have enough of a chance to completely neutralize acid and repair teeth. Photo courtesy of c.flessen (cc)
Candy, Cookies, Cake, and Pie
Trite but true: eating too much candy will rot our teeth. (Alas, my mother was right.)
“When bacteria (plaque) comes into contact with sugar in the mouth, acid is produced, which attacks the teeth for twenty minutes or more. This can eventually result in tooth decay,” says the American Dental Association.
If we give in to the sweet craving, we should go for something that clears out of our mouths quickly (see above on the problem with sticky foods), meaning it’s a no-go on the chewy suckers and caramels. On the other hand—get ready for some good news here—chocolate is a better choice (in terms of teeth, at least) because the sugar it does contain is coated in fat, meaning it doesn’t linger in our mouth. Photo courtesy of scubadive67 (cc)
Every time we eat something in these categories, it kick-starts the mouth’s bacteria to start churning out acid and breaking down those pearly whites in the process. So those of us who just can’t resist sticky, sugary, starchy snacks should keep a few simple counteracting steps in mind. After finishing a starchy delight, rinse with water, toss in some gum, or brush with some fluoride toothpaste. (Unless you’ve already brushed twice, that is.) Cheese is good for counteracting acid (so you can always chase that pineapple with some cheddar), as are chicken, nuts, and fruits with high water content.
After seeing the foods we should cut back on, maybe we’ll all wish we were still blissfully ignorant. But if we limit the number of these foods, at least we won’t get lectured next time we go to the dentist.
Updated July 23, 2009