Cutting sugar from your diet? That’s great! But if you are planning to replace the sugary drinks and snacks with calorie-free, artificially sweetened alternatives – think again. Your smile doesn’t like fake sugar.
Sugar can cause tooth decay because some types of oral bacteria feed on sugars that we consume in sweet drinks and snacks. When bacterial microorganisms break down sugar, they release acids that 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,” he said.
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 recent 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, actually 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.
And sugar-free gum is still OK to enjoy. The study found that it can stimulate saliva flow, rinse away acids and even reharden softened tooth enamel. It may be best to stick to the minty-fresh flavors though, at least pending further studies.