What is it about this molecule called sugar that is so bad for teeth? Let’s take a step back first and define what is meant by “sugar”. Most people know that sweet foods contain a significant dose of sugar. They know that because sugar tastes sweet. However, did you know that milk and starchy foods such as bread also contain “sugar”? On a molecular level, these types of food break down in the mouth into molecules that are called “sugars”. To simplify this area of food science for our understanding, we can summarize by saying that most foods are broken down into sugars, with the sweeter foods yielding the most potent dose for detrimental effects to our teeth.
Now that we know that most foods contain sugar, it’s time to discuss what happens when sugar comes into contact with teeth. There are certain bacteria in our mouths that love to eat the sugars. These bacteria form sticky layers on our teeth called plaque. When the sugar reaches them, the bacteria grab them and consume them and produce a lot of acid in the process. Yes, acid. It is this acid that will eat away at the teeth and eventually create a hole known as a cavity. The presence of this cavity-forming process is referred to scientifically as dental caries.
How can we reduce the exposure of our teeth to this cavity-forming acid? First of all, cut down on sweets. We all know that this is easier said than done, however. If sweets are to be ingested, there are certain tactics that will help decrease the risk of cavities. For parents of young toddlers, juice can be diluted with water. Also encourage children to drink their juice or milk in one sitting rather than sipping at it throughout the day and night. Similarly for adults, drink coffee and sweetened drinks in a short period of time rather than taking small sips over the span of an hour. Another healthy habit is to rinse the mouth with water or drink some water after drinking or eating foods high in sugar. Lastly, it is important to go to bed with a clean mouth, free of sugars. The night time regime should include brushing with fluoride containing tooth paste and flossing between the teeth to ensure all surfaces of the teeth are free of plaque and sugar.
In summary, sugars from food initiates dental caries through the action of acid-producing bacteria. We can reduce the risk of getting cavities by decreasing the amount of sugar we eat, limiting the amount of time the sugar is in contact with our teeth, and ensuring our mouths are free of sugar by the time we lie down to sleep at night. The benefits of practicing these 3 simple principles will lead to healthy teeth, less dental treatment and savings in your wallet. Now that’s sweet!
– by Dr. Flora Li