Bacteria on our teeth that break down food also produce enamel-damaging acid that can lead to tooth decay, aka dental caries, or cavities. According to the CDC, at least 80% of people will have a cavity by the time they’re 34 years old. While cavities are one of the most common dental diseases, they are also largely preventable.
In the case of dental health, “you are what you eat” rings especially true. The mouth is the window into a person’s general health and well-being. In addition to practicing good oral hygiene and brushing with fluoridated water, we’ve rounded up some foods and beverages to avoid in order to prevent tooth decay. But first, let’s take a quick look at what cavities are and why we get them in the first place.
What Are Cavities?
Enamel is the thin outer layer of your teeth. This hard tissue is what keeps the tooth intact and protects it from decay. When the structure is eroded by acid, you can get a cavity. As the American Dental Association (ADA) explains, “Plaque, a sticky film of bacteria, constantly forms on your teeth. When you eat or drink foods containing sugars, the bacteria in plaque produce acids that attack tooth enamel. The stickiness of the plaque keeps these acids in contact with your teeth and over time the enamel can break down. This is when cavities can form.” Cavities “are permanently damaged areas in the hard surface of your teeth that develop into tiny openings or holes” according to the Mayo Clinic.
What Causes Cavities?
Bacteria, what we eat, and poor dental hygiene are all factors that can cause tooth decay. The Academy of General Dentistry (AGD) observes that it’s not what we eat so much as the “frequency in which the foods are eaten and the time they remain as particles in the mouth” that can lead to tooth decay. In the words of the Mayo Clinic, “If you don’t clean your teeth soon after eating and drinking, plaque forms quickly and the first stages of decay can begin.”
Decay can also develop around old fillings. As the ADA puts it, “Over the years, fillings may weaken and tend to fracture and leak around the edges. Bacteria accumulate in these tiny crevices causing acid to build up which leads to decay.” The AGD states that “If erosion spreads beneath the enamel into the dentin, pain, and sensitivity may result. This is usually a precursor to nerve infection, which can require root canal surgery.”
While we may not be able to cross all of the following enamel-eroding foods off of our shopping lists, at least we can be aware of the dangers. In addition to avoiding the foods below, tooth decay interventions include brushing your teeth at least twice a day, flossing, and regular dentist visits.
Carbonated Soft Drinks
Not only are soft drinks loaded with sugar (~10 tsp/pop), but most contain phosphoric and citric acids, which can take a toll on tooth enamel. As the Mayo Clinic points out, “sipping soda or other acidic drinks throughout the day helps create a continual acid bath over your teeth.” The AGD explains, “Soft drinks, which contain sticky sugars that break down into acids, adhere easily to tooth surfaces. These acids can soften the teeth and promote the formation of plaque, which erodes the enamel. Enamel breakdown leads to cavities.” Even diet soda, which contains different kinds of sugar, but is still acidic, is bad for your teeth.
Saliva is the body’s way of reducing the effects of the acids and enzymes attacking your teeth from sugar. It contains calcium and phosphate and restores minerals that have been lost to bacterial acids. Therefore, things that can create dry mouth, such as caffeinated beverages, alcohol, and coffee reduce saliva and are therefore also bad for your teeth. Finally, dark-colored drinks can discolor or stain your teeth.
If you can’t quit Cokes, try drinking them along with a glass of water to rinse away the acidity and sugars. Brushing your teeth right afterward may actually hasten decay. Instead, the Wisconsin Dental Association advises waiting “at least an hour after your last drink or meal before brushing.”
Sticky/Chewy Candies and Sweets
Sticky sweets such as lollipops, caramels, and toffee are oral bacteria’s favorite snack. Sour candy is particularly guilty for its combo of sugar and acidity. Try satisfying your sweet tooth with fresh fruit or sugar-free gum instead.
Slowly dissolving candy means your mouth is saturated in sugar for a long time. This gives bad bacteria plenty of time to produce harmful acid, according to OraGuard, the makers of the Nano-b toothbrush. Those who chomp instead of savoring the flavor risk chipping a tooth. Instead, choose saliva-stimulating sugar-free lollipops, hard candies, or gum.
While dried fruits are a healthier snack choice than chewy candy, they suffer from the same sticky-sweet problems of high sugar content and getting stuck in or on your teeth. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Foods that cling to your teeth for a long time are more likely to cause decay than foods that are easily washed away by saliva.” Choose fresh fruits or rinse, floss, and brush soon after eating dried fruits.
Starchy Foods and Refined Carbohydrates
Starchy foods and refined carbs like soft bread, crackers, potato chips, and pasta also tend to get trapped between our teeth. According to OraGuard, when consumed, refined carbohydrates turn into sugars immediately in your mouth to kick-start the acid production by bad bacteria. Opt for whole-grain if possible, but when you do indulge in starchy foods or refined carbs, free the debris by rinsing with water and flossing.
Speaking of foods that get stuck in your teeth, that piece of popcorn that lodges itself between teeth or in your gums also promotes bacteria growth. And unpopped kernels have chipped many a tooth.
Citrus Fruits and Juices
Fruit juices are healthier than sodas, as we’ve learned sugar + high acidity (aka low pH) = danger. The AGD asserts that “Frequently consuming foods with low pH value, such as soft drinks, fruit juices, pickles, fresh fruit, and yogurt can lead to irreversible dental erosion.”
Fruit has enough sugar as it is, sans being canned in syrupy saccharine.