We all hear that sugar ‘rots our teeth’ and that the dentist warns us to stay away from too many sugary snack and drinks, but do you know the true effect that sugar has on your teeth, how it works to fuel bacteria and eventually threatens your healthy smile?
The damage sugar does to teeth is initially silent but persistent, so it can be hard to resist sugary treats when you can’t see any immediate negative effects. Unfortunately, this can mean that by the time you notice an issue with your teeth some irreparable damage is often already done.
When it comes to keeping your teeth healthy, prevention is always better than cure, so we aim to educate and motivate our patients and provide advice on how to look after teeth and avoid emergency visits for a filling. Here are some of the most important facts about sugar and teeth that will help you keep your smile healthy and strong.
What food and drink includes sugar?
Along with the obvious culprits such as fizzy drinks, sweets and chocolate, there are a number of foods and drinks that you may not realise have high a high sugar content. These include:
- Sweetened cereal
- White bread
- Fruit juice
- Tomato ketchup
- Fat-free yoghurts
- Energy bars
If you enjoy a drink or two on special occasions, at the weekend or in the evening then you may be consuming more sugar than you realise. Cocktails are the worst culprit as many of them, such as margaritas, mojitos and daiquiris, contain several teaspoons of sugar per serving.
While alcoholic spirits generally don’t have high sugar levels, their mixers often do and can result in a lot of sugar being unknowingly consumed over the course of an evening. Mixers to watch out for in particular are tonic water, coca cola and cranberry juice.
Starchy foods such as potato and pasta are also damaging, as starches are made of strings of sugar molecules, which our body’s enzymes break down into simple sugars. This process begins in the mouth with our saliva and then continues in our stomach and intestines. The added risk with starchy foods is that they can get stuck in the teeth, and therefore get broken down into sugars before passing through to the intestine.
How does sugar rot your teeth?
The effect that sugar has on our enamel is highly damaging, but it isn’t necessarily true to say that sugar directly rots our teeth. In fact, the truth about why sugar is so bad for our teeth is that it acts as a catalyst to reactions which ultimately erode enamel.
We have many different types of bacteria in our mouth, some of which is healthy and necessary to maintain oral hygiene. However, the bad types of bacteria form over our teeth in a sticky film called plaque. A build-up of plaque can cause tooth decay, so it is important that it is removed regularly by brushing. Sugar is plaque’s best friend and allows the decay process to speed up, meaning that damage can be done before we get the chance to brush our teeth.
Plaque feeds on sugar for energy, enabling it to multiply much more quickly, covering a larger surface of our teeth and becoming thicker and harder to brush away. This plaque produces lactic acid, which is what really harms our teeth. A build-up of plaque can also form tartar, which can cause additional oral health problems such as gingivitis and periodontitis, the leading cause of tooth loss.
Acid and the effect on our teeth
The lactic acid created by plaque causes a process to occur of the surface of our teeth known as demineralisation. Simply put, it saps essential minerals from our enamel which we need to keep it strong and healthy. We don’t grow more enamel over time, so over years of damage and demineralisation, its thickness and strength can reduce significantly.
With small amounts of plaque, this doesn’t need to be alarming. Luckily, our body is a finely tuned bacteria-fighting machine and our own saliva contains calcium and phosphates, minerals which our enamel needs and to help reverse demineralisation. However, it cannot repair all the damage that is caused when this process is sped up by sugar, as the effects are too strong.
Another damaging side effect of acid is the way it affects the pH levels of our mouths and creates a harmful environment.
How sugar changes our pH levels
As sugar feeds bacteria and produces acid, the pH level of our mouths is altered and another of our body’s ways to naturally keep our teeth and gums healthy is undermined. Our mouths naturally have a neutral pH level of around 7, which protects our enamel. Tooth decay cannot occur unless the pH level drops to below 5.5, a more acidic level. By consuming sugary or acidic food and drink, the pH level of our mouths can rapidly reach below 5 and give bacteria the conditions it needs to cause tooth decay and rot through our enamel.
When decay forms a hole in the enamel, this is known as a cavity or dental caries. Although a cavity may initially exist only within the enamel, if left untreated it can continue to grow and eventually penetrate the softer, yellowish substance underneath called dentin. It is at this more advanced stage that we may begin to notice pain and discomfort in our tooth and take a trip to the dentist.
As well as supporting the enamel, dentin provides protection to our sensitive blood vessels and nerves which supply our teeth through two roots. If a dental cavity becomes deep enough to reach this area and aggravates the nerves, then a dentist may need to perform a root canal procedure before placing a filling and/or crown.
To help protect your teeth against sugar, it is recommended to brush at least twice a day, once in the morning and again last thing at night. Mouthwash can be used throughout the day to clean the mouth of harmful bacteria, and sugar-free chewing gum can also be chewed after snacking or meals to stimulate increased saliva production. However, along with these good oral hygiene practices, limiting your intake of sugary food and drink is the best option by far to keep your teeth strong and healthy for as long as possible.
We recommend regular check-ups with your dentist to ensure that you teeth stay in good health and to spot the early signs of damage caused by sugar. To book in for an appointment with our highly-skilled team and receive more advice on how to avoid high levels of sugar, contact us today.