Raccoons in some parks and campgrounds have broken teeth, gum disease, and cavities from eating the remains of sandwiches, cookies, and other foods left by humans, says a recent report by University of Illinois animal experts. Humans are luckier. Fluoride in our drinking water, toothpaste, and other products, along with better brushing at home, has cut tooth decay in half over the last 20 years.
Many young children have never had any tooth decay. But teenagers haven’t done that well. By the age of 15, more that three out of four have at least one decayed tooth. Dentists believe we could do much better. Most of the problem, they tell us, comes from sugar and other fermentable carbohydrates, including a surprising number of good-for-health fruits, vegetables, and starchy foods like bread. “Fermentable” means these foods can be broken down by bacteria in the mouth to create acidity that eats away tooth enamel.
Here’s advice from dental experts on foods to watch out for, foods to protect your teeth, and tricks of timing to help keep your teeth bright and healthy.
Is It Sticky?
Watch out for foods that stick to indentations in your teeth and spaces between teeth. That’s not just sticky sweets like taffy, but soft fruits like bananas, dried fruits like figs and raisins, and a long list of cooked starchy foods, including french fries, potato chips, boiled potatoes, carrots, white rice, and white bread. Wheat seems to create more acidity than corn. Some of the worst offenders are foods that combine sugar with cooked starch that sticks to the teeth–cream-filled cookies, for instance, or cupcakes.
What we think is sticky isn’t always what experts call sticky, though. Tests of bear-shaped gummy candies found they didn’t increase mouth acidity. Researchers suggested two reasons: For one, the gummy candy is so tough it holds together instead of sticking to the teeth. For another, it requires so much chewing it stimulates the flow of saliva, which contains proteins, minerals, and enzymes that protect the teeth.
Is It Acid?
Most soft drinks and many fruits and fruit juices are acid and will increase mouth acidity for a short time. Carbonated soft drinks all contain phosphoric acid and citric acid, both used to heighten flavor. Most have sugar, too. Diet drinks don’t. Plain fruit juices and some fruits–citrus fruits like oranges, for instance–have both citric acid and natural sugar. While acids can cause decay, liquids don’t stick to teeth and are not as much of a problem as solid foods.
How Often? How Long?
It’s not necessarily how much of a problem food or drink you consume, but how long your teeth are exposed to its effects. Hard candies, cough drops, and breath mints all stay in your mouth for a long time, and keep bathing your teeth in sugar, which promotes decay.
Dentists also report that patients who were trying to lose weight and sipped diet sift drinks all day long to keep from feeling hungry often came in with tooth enamel eaten away by constant acidity. Long-distance bicycle riders who sip fruit juice when they’re thirsty can have a similar problem, experts say. Plain water to relieve thirst on the road is better for tooth health.
Foods That Protect
Now the good news. Some foods seem to protect against decay. Aged cheeses, milk, and unsweetened dairy foods like plain yogurt are especially helpful. Three cheeses, in fact–aged Cheddar, Swiss, and Monterey Jack–eliminated mouth acidity when they were eaten either before or after something sugary. Cheese and other dairy foods help because they contain protein, along with calcium and phosphorus to strengthen teeth.
Other protective foods include peanuts (not sticky peanut butter), other nuts, eggs, ham, other meats, popcorn, corn chips, and pumpkin seeds. Most provide protein and helpful minerals. Some, like popcorn and pumpkin seeds, are also rich in dietary fiber. Fiber makes you chew more, which turns on the protective flow of saliva.
Most of these foods are also rich in fat, and some recent studies suggest a high-fat diet is linked to tooth decay, as well as obesity and other ills. What to do? Pay attention not only to what you eat, but how much and when, experts tell us.
Meals, Snacks, Drinks
Try eating problem foods like french fries, bread, soft or sticky fruit, and heavy sweets at mealtime. That’s when you have a greater flow of saliva, which helps clear food out of your mouth, and neutralizes acid from bacteria.
Go easy on snacks that are sugary or starchy. Instead, reach for nibbles like peanuts and popcorn, crunchies like raw carrot sticks and celery, or a small piece of cheese.
Sugarless chewing gum is safe for teeth, and the chewing turns on the flow of saliva. Bear in mind, though, sugar substitutes like sorbitol have calories and used in excessive amounts can give you diarrhea.
In place of soft drinks, try iced tea once in a while. Tea has fluoride, and instant tea has the most. Another possibility is cocoa. The chocolate we eat isn’t good for teeth, most experts say, but cocoa seems to be a protector. Not the pale, pre-sweetened stuff, but the old-fashioned dark powder that’s really unsweetened chocolate with all the fat removed. Make it with lowfat milk, and you get double protection.
Brush Away Trouble
Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, dentists tell us: once after breakfast to clean away food particles and protect your teeth through the day; once again at bedtime. This is important because saliva flow stops when you sleep, and you need the protection the fluoride gives you.
An oral care survey of 300 teenagers last year found 70 percent do brush at least twice a day. And how about the rest of us? Isn’t a beautiful smile worth the trouble?