If you’ve heard that candy rots your teeth, or that your one- (or two- or three-) seltzer-a-day habit will erode your tooth enamel, you might be wondering what other treats, drinks, meals and snacks might be harming your teeth. While it’s technically true that all foods and drinks can cause tooth decay — or damage to the surface, or enamel, of your teeth — not every food or drink causes equal harm, and some people are more susceptible to dental decay than others.
Here’s what to keep in mind when taking care of your oral health.
Why are some foods worse than others?
When assessing how bad a meal, snack, dessert or drink is for your dental health, there are two main things to consider, said Dr. Apoena de Aguiar Ribeiro, a pediatric dentist and microbiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies the oral microbiome and how it affects dental decay: its composition and its quality.
Inside our mouths live more than 700 species of bacteria — some that are helpful, some that are harmful. The harmful bacteria break down sugars from foods and drinks and turn them into acids, which over time can pull essential minerals from your teeth and lead to cavities.
If you’re not vigilant about cleaning, bacteria can also form a soft film, or plaque, on the surface of your teeth, which can exacerbate that acidity and create an ideal environment for even more bacteria to proliferate. If your dental plaque grows and hardens enough, it can turn into tartar, which can also irritate your gums and cause gingivitis.
What types of food are bad?
Sugary foods — and in particular, those composed of sucrose, or table sugar — are especially bad for your teeth because harmful bacteria thrive on them, Dr. de Aguiar Ribeiro said. You can often find sucrose in many processed foods and sugary drinks like candy, pastries, fruit juice concentrates and sodas.
In addition, any foods that are sticky, gooey or chewy — like gummies, dried fruits, syrups and candies — get stuck in the nooks and crannies of your teeth and the spaces between them. When excess sugar lingers on your teeth, harmful bacteria can store it in their cells, “like a pantry inside of them,” Dr. de Aguiar Ribeiro said, and continue producing acid for hours after you’ve eaten.
Certain drinks — like sugary sodas, juices, energy drinks and milkshakes — are also heavy offenders. They wash your teeth in sticky and sugary solutions, and they’re acidic to boot. “Our teeth begin to break down when the acid level in the mouth dips below a pH of 5.5,” said Dr. Rocio Quinonez, a professor of pediatric dentistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and “sodas tend to have a pH around 3 to 4.”
Other carbonated beverages like seltzers are also acidic. So are coffees and alcoholic drinks which are often consumed with sugary syrups and mixers as well.
Some fresh fruits, vegetables or starchy foods — like citrus, potatoes, rice or even bananas — are often maligned as bad for your teeth because they may contain sugars or acids that can wear away at your teeth. But they also contain nutrients that will boost your overall health, which in turn can benefit your teeth, said Dr. Dorota Kopycka-Kedzierawski, a dentist at the University of Rochester Medical Center and a researcher in cariology, or the study of cavities and dental decay. Even if they are foods that are sugary or tend to get stuck in your teeth — that tradeoff may be worth it, she said.
If you have particularly deep grooves in your teeth, or teeth that are tightly in contact with each other, chewy and sticky foods may be more of a concern for you than others, Dr. Quinonez added. In which case, you should be more mindful not only of your diet but also of your cleaning habits.
So long as you are brushing your teeth twice a day — once in the morning and once before bedtime — and flossing every day, the nutritional boons of those foods will outweigh the risks of dental damage. Though when it comes to fruit, Dr. Kopycka-Kedzierawski said, “it’s better to eat the fruit than to drink it,” since many store-bought or even homemade fruit smoothies have added sucrose sugars.
What can I do to thwart tooth decay?
The good news is that, in addition to brushing and flossing regularly, there are a few other science-backed strategies you can use to keep your dental health in check.
Avoid snacking and sipping. Saliva, which helps to flush away lingering food particles, is one of the most protective forces for your teeth. It re-mineralizes and strengthens tooth enamel, and contains bicarbonate, which helps to neutralize the acidity in your mouth.
But any time you eat or drink, it takes about 20 to 30 minutes for saliva to build up to protective levels, so frequent snacking or drinking can cause an imbalance, Dr. Quinonez said.
If you absolutely must have that sugary drink, try to consume it with a meal, or in one sitting rather than nestling it all day, Dr. Quinonez said: “I would rather you’re a gulper not a sipper.” Drinking water after you’ve finished with whatever food or drink you’ve consumed can also help swish out any sugars, she added.
Limit your alcohol intake. Heavy drinkers should also be careful, because alcohol can inhibit regular salivation, making it harder for your body to clean up residues clinging to your teeth.
Be mindful of certain conditions or medication side effects. Various medical conditions, treatments and medications — like tuberculosis, chemotherapy, dialysis, antihistamines and blood pressure medications — can inhibit saliva production, or change the quality of your saliva. So those affected should be vigilant about practicing good dental hygiene.
Swap in sugar alternatives. Switching out your sugary drinks and snacks for sugar-free substitutes is a great move for your teeth, Dr. de Aguiar Ribeiro said. Sugar substitutes like aspartame or sugar alcohols are not metabolized by bacteria like regular sugars, so they don’t contribute to dental decay. But keep in mind that the acids in diet sodas will still cause some demineralization of your teeth.
Chew sugar-free gum with xylitol. Similarly, Dr. de Aguiar Ribeiro added, “sugar alcohols like xylitol that have antimicrobial activity” can slow down the acid production of mouth bacteria. “Sugar-free gum with xylitol, when chewed three times a day, has been shown to increase your salivary flow, and also has an antimicrobial effect,” she said. So if you’re craving something sweet between meals, a sugar-free xylitol gum is one of your best options.
Drink certain types of tea. There is also evidence that black and green teas can help prevent dental decay, since they contain fluoride and have higher pH levels. “But don’t add sugar please,” Dr. de Aguiar Ribeiro added.
Get regular checkups. Tooth decay is the most common noncommunicable disease worldwide. For most people, Dr. Kopycka-Kedzierawski said, having regular dental checkups every six months is enough to catch any decay before it gets too serious. Seeing a professional is important, because once a cavity has formed enough for you to notice it, you are well into dental decay.
The habits that are good for dental health are generally practices that are good for your health overall, Dr. Quinonez said. Eating fewer processed and sugary foods, having regular checkups every six months, and avoiding snacks between meals — especially if that snack is a sugary or sticky food or drink — can pay dividends. You don’t have to overthink it, she added.