Protect Your Smile with Smart Food & Drink Choices
by Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN, American Institute for Cancer Research
Karen Collins, MSN Health Expert
We all know that too much sugar leads to dental cavities. But did you know that researchers are just as concerned about exposure to acid (which could dissolve tooth enamel) from excessive consumption of soft drinks and fruit juice?
Skyrocketing consumption of soft drinks, fruit juice, energy and sports drinks has many health professionals concerned. In addition to the extra calories these drinks provide, they also contain acids that gradually dissolve the enamel of our teeth with long-term exposure. (The enamel is the thin, hard outer layer of our teeth that maintains tooth structure and acts as a barrier to decay. When enamel wears away, teeth become cracked, discolored and more sensitive to hot and cold).
A primary step in preventing this erosion of enamel is to limit carbonated soft drinks, according to the Academy of General Dentistry. Researchers emphasize that regular sugar-containing soft drinks seem to contain more acid and promote more erosion than diet soft drinks. But both types are far more acidic than water. Lemon iced tea and sports drinks have as much erosion-promoting acid as carbonated soft drinks since they too contain phosphoric and citric acids.
Fruit juices are also cause for concern. Although they can be good sources of vitamins and phytochemicals, they are concentrated in sugar and studies show that their natural acid content can promote erosion, too. In one study, immersing slices of enamel from freshly extracted teeth in any of these drinks for 48 hours - equal to less than two years of typical beverage consumption - dissolved an average of four percent of the enamel.
In addition to limiting the amount of consumption, the Academy of General Dentistry recommends consuming acidic drinks in limited time periods - rather than sipping them throughout the day. You can further reduce exposure to the acid by using a straw. Another tip: Don’t rush to brush your teeth right after consuming these drinks. Tooth enamel remains softened and more susceptible to mechanical abrasion for about an hour after acid exposure. Instead, rinse your mouth with water or chew sugarless gum to stimulate saliva production, which helps to neutralize acidity.
Of course, enamel erosion isn’t the only dental problem associated with poor nutrition. Dental cavities are also problematic. These areas of tooth decay develop when the natural bacteria present in our mouths decompose the remnants of sugary or starchy foods left on our teeth. This process produces acids that dissolve the minerals in our teeth, weakening them and leading to decay. The good news: Our saliva neutralizes these acids and contains minerals that can strengthen our teeth.
Although we most often hear about cavities related to consumption of sweets, researchers say there are other culprits. In addition to sugar, many other types of carbohydrate are also to blame, for example, those found in foods like chips, bread and crackers. While some of these carbohydrate-containing foods supply important nutrients and fiber, when we nibble on these foods all day, our teeth are constantly bathed in carbohydrate. Foods that are sticky (whether jelly beans, raisins or granola bars) pose extra problems by supplying carbohydrate that is harder for saliva to wash away.
The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry notes another reason for tooth decay - most notable among the youngest patients. Children put to bed with a bottle, experts say, are at increased risk as the milk, formula or juice will pool around teeth during sleep, promoting tooth decay.
In a nutshell, tooth damage and decay depend on the amount of carbohydrate, the type of food or drink, and the length of exposure. Saliva can play a large role in helping to wash away the culpable carbohydrate and neutralize the acids that have formed. Some dentists recommend sugarless gum to stimulate saliva flow, but simply limiting between-meal snacking and rinsing the mouth with water is also effective. All this is, of course, in addition to regular brushing and flossing of teeth.