How Sugar Affects your Teeth

By Catherine M. Fascilla, D.D.S.

What is it with sugar that makes it so bad for our teeth? From the bread and cereal that we eat to our favorite carbonated drinks, almost everything we consume whether it is sweet or not, contains sugar. The bacteria present in our mouths, Streptococcus mutans, consume the sugar for energy. This results in the production of acids that demineralize our teeth. As enamel is weakened, cavities are formed.

Not all sugars are the same. While most of us know that sugars in candy and soda are very harmful to our teeth because they are converted to acid very quickly, we may not be aware that carbohydrates like white bread, cookies and potato chips are also converted rapidly. Salivary amylase is the enzyme found in saliva that starts the process of digestion in the mouth. It breaks down starch to sugar. All of the processed carbohydrates that we consume are converted to sugar via the salivary amylase and then to acid by the bacteria in our mouth. These foods offer little or no nutritional value. The sugars found naturally in fruits, vegetables and dairy products are not as harmful because they contain nutrients and minerals that buffer the acid and are very beneficial to our health.

Not only does the type of sugar we consume affect the rate of tooth decay but also the amount of time the sugars remain in contact with our teeth. Even after we swallow, trace amounts of sugar remain on our teeth. Food that sticks to our teeth for extended periods are most harmful. Obvious examples are sticky caramels, candied apples and fruit roll ups. Very harmful and maybe not so well known are raisins (any dried fruit is concentrated with sugar), potato chips and cookies. While soda is loaded with sugar, it is most harmful when sipped slowly over an extended period of time. Sucking on hard candies is also very damaging. When babies are put to bed with a bottle containing anything but water, the sugars in those beverages bathe the teeth for hours. That is the cause of “baby bottle rot”. It does not matter if it is formula, milk or juice.

So what can we do to protect our teeth since just about everything we eat has sugar in it? The answer to that is very simple. Besides trying to minimize the amount of sugar we consume and the length of sugar exposure, we need to brush and floss at least twice a day and use fluoridated tooth paste. Fluoride remineralizes tooth enamel, making it more acid resistant. We also need to visit the dentist twice a year. Teeth that have been cleaned thoroughly of sticky plaque and rough tartar are more cavity resistant. Your dentist can detect early signs of decay before full-fledged cavities form. Fluoride treatments and sealants may also be prescribed to provide added protection against tooth decay.