Dentists and dental hygienists have been telling us for years that – when it comes to our health – sugary drinks are evil. But a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found that Americans are still consuming unhealthy amounts of sugar-sweetened beverages.
According to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, 49.3% of adults and 62.9% of children consume at least one sugar-sweetened beverage each day. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend reducing added sugars consumption to less than 10% of total calories per day. The guidelines also strongly advise us to choose beverages with no added sugars at all.
But do we listen to our dentist, hygienist, or the CDC? Nope.
“Over the last few years, the prevalence of dental demineralization (white spot lesions) and erosion has increased, possibly due to the increased consumption of sugary drinks, including soft drinks and juices with other liquids with prolonged exposures,” said Francisco Ramos-Gomez, DDS, MS, MPH, a professor of pediatric dentistry at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Dentistry.
“Dentists should have a role in helping reduce the consumption of sugary drinks. As we see the increase in the consumption of sugary drinks, there is an associated increase in dental decay. As dentists, we can provide dietary guidance and counseling with patients and their parents,” added Ramos-Gomez.
The CDC’s definition of sugar-sweetened beverages includes soda, fruit drinks, sweetened bottled waters, sports and energy drinks, and sweetened coffees and teas. It does not include diet drinks, 100% fruit juice, alcohol, or flavored milks.
But just because juice, booze and artificially sweetened drinks aren’t on the list, don’t assume that they are good for your teeth or health.
Sugar – the real stuff – is absolutely bad for your teeth, as it feeds some types of oral bacteria that then release acids which weaken tooth enamel – the hard outer coating of your teeth. This dental erosion process creates tiny, shallow holes (cavities), which often get deeper and bigger over time, as the decay works its way down to the soft pulp inside the tooth. If you’re not getting regular checkups and cleanings, it’s a safe bet you’ll be in the dentist’s chair, awaiting a root canal, at some point in the near future.
Logic would seem to indicate that you can swap sugars for artificial sweeteners, and spare your teeth without having to give up sweet tastes. But a study from the University of Melbourne’s Oral Health Cooperative Research Centre has found that sugar-free foods and drinks can cause significant damage to tooth enamel, too.
The researchers tested 23 different kinds of beverages, including sodas and performance drinks, finding that drinks with acidic additives and low pH levels can damage the enamel, regardless of whether it contains sugar or not. For example, the research team found that sugar-free drinks like Diet Coke can soften enamel by 30 to 50 percent.
Tests of eight brands of sports drinks showed that all but two of them caused significant loss and softening of the enamel surface. But the damage caused by sports drinks was significantly less severe than with a soft drink such as Diet Coke.
Water, on the other hand, made the surface enamel harder.
“Many people are not aware that while reducing your sugar intake does reduce your risk of dental decay, the chemical mix of acids in some foods and drinks can cause the equally damaging condition of dental erosion,” professor Eric Reynolds, one of the study authors and the CEO of the Oral Health Cooperative Research Centre, said in a statement.
Sweeteners aren’t solely to blame for dental problems caused by sugar-free drinks. Ingredients such as citric acid and phosphoric acid, used to give a tangy taste to sodas, sports drinks and juice blends, are also very effective at softening dental enamel.
Sugar-free foods such as candies and other fruit-flavored snacks can include citric acid and phosphoric acid as well. The University of Melbourne’s Oral Health researchers tested 32 commercially available sugar-free candies and found that fruit-flavored snacks and drinks tend to cause more dental damage than the mint-flavored ones.
To protect your healthy smile, limit your intake of artificially flavored foods and drinks, especially those containing citric or phosphoric acid. If you opt to partake, rinse with water and wait at least an hour before brushing your teeth. Brushing while enamel is in a soft, weakened state will cause further damage.
Sugar-free gum is ok from a dental health standpoint. Numerous studies have found that it can stimulate saliva flow, rinse away acids and even re-harden softened tooth enamel. Stick to the minty-fresh flavors and be aware that chewing sugar free gum just might make you hungry.
At-home dental hygiene is critical for oral health. But regular checkups and professional cleanings are just as important. And if you’ve been putting off seeing your dentist due to budget issues, dental savings plans provide savings of 10%-60% on a wide variety of preventive dental care —including root canals and crowns.
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