Priya Seetal

Most of us would have heard or read that eating sugary foods is bad for our teeth.  But how accurate is this information?  Although scientific evidence shows that frequent consumption of starchy and sugary foods has a role to play in the formation of dental caries (rotten teeth), science has also shown that this role is substantially reduced when oral hygiene and the use of fluoride toothpaste is adequate. 

Therefore, any effort to prevent dental caries should focus on having a good oral hygiene routine that includes the use of fluoride toothpaste as this has proven markedly more significant in preventing dental caries than any dietary measure. Dietary advice for the reduction of dental caries risk should focus on limiting the amount of times our teeth are exposed to starchy and sugary foods.  

Why is a healthy mouth important?

Having a clean, healthy mouth is an important part of having a healthy body. Over time, plaque containing bacteria will build up, and if not removed regularly this may lead to dental decay and irritation to the gums (gingivitis). Tooth decay and gingivitis are diseases that can be prevented.

All the parts of the mouth have a role to play in good overall health:

  • The lips help people to eat, talk and smile;
  • The tongue helps people to taste and swallow food, to talk and it helps to clean the teeth;
  • The gums are an anchor for the teeth. They keep the teeth well-spaced;
  • Strong healthy teeth are important for chewing food, clear speech, good smelling breath and a good appearance.

Dental caries (holes in the teeth) form because of the action of bacteria found in the mouth. When a person eats certain foods, or certain types of beverages the bacteria use the food to live on. When they use this food they release an acid which weakens the enamel; if this happens many times a day, for many days, a hole will develop. This hole will get bigger and deeper if it is not treated by a dentist; it will eventually start to cause pain. The whole tooth may have to be removed if the hole gets very big.

Dental erosion is the gradual wearing away of the enamel by acid. This acid can come from drinks such as fruit juice, fizzy drinks or sports drinks (including sugar free kinds). This can also occur in a person who vomits often, such as a teenager with an eating disorder. Dental erosion can cause sensitivity and pain. Enamel does not grow back; if a tooth is seriously eroded it may need to be protected with a filling.

If a person develops an infection in the gums, it may pass to the bones of the jaw; this is called periodontal disease. This can cause other health problems in older people; such as stroke, or an increased risk for heart attack.

Steps to take for a healthy mouth:

Step 1: Clean your teeth and mouth

  • The mouth and teeth must be cleaned twice a day.  This should be in the morning before or after breakfast and before going to sleep at night. Brushing last thing before going to sleep is important because the protective effect of saliva (nature’s mouthwash) is reduced during sleep. Brushing also removes food that sticks to the teeth. Not brushing means that any food left in the mouth can be used by bacteria all night, and this acid will remain on the teeth all this time;
  • Brushing cleans away the plaque and bacteria that live in the mouth. When there are fewer bacteria there is less chance of holes forming and gums getting infected. There will always be some bacteria in the mouth, but the aim of brushing is to get rid of as many as possible;
  • All the teeth must be cleaned, not just those in front. It is also important to clean all surfaces, not just the top ones. Care must be taken not to damage the gums when brushing too energetically;
  • Clean your tongue and cheeks, by lightly brushing the surface;
  • During the day the mouth can be cleaned by rinsing with clean water, especially after eating sweetened foods or drinks.

Step 2: Use fluoride toothpaste

  • The use of the mineral fluoride makes teeth harder and more resistant to decay. In some places, it is found naturally in the water, but most people get the fluoride they need from toothpastes that have added fluoride.
  • The regular use of fluoride has been scientifically shown to be effective to help prevent tooth decay. The fluoride strengthens the tooth enamel and may also discourage the growth of the bacteria that produce damaging acids.

Step 3: Eat well for a healthy mouth

  • Have a healthy eating plan that supplies a variety of foods from all the food groups. This will supply the nutrients needed for building and maintaining the teeth, and for the health of the gums, tongue and lips.
  • Eat regular good mixed meals and limit the number of times snacks are eaten between meals.

Sugar can cause tooth decay if it is eaten many times a day (from food or drinks). Cane sugar is not the only carbohydrate containing food that can be used by bacteria in the mouth; sugars from foods such as fruit juice, dried fruit, milk and starch containing foods (e.g. bread, potato chips, crackers) can also be fermented by bacteria, leading to acid production, when they are eaten often during the day. Sugar and starch containing foods that remain in the mouth for a long time e.g. sucking on a sweet are a higher risk than those that quickly swallowed e.g. sipping a sugary drink through a straw.  Some foods may tend to have particles that remain in the mouth, such as between teeth, these may provide food to bacteria for a long time (e.g. raisins, popcorn, bread). 

  • Rinse your mouth with water after eating food at school and after eating sweets or snacks;
  • Some foods have a composition that is less harmful to your teeth than others. Those foods high in calcium, phosphate and protein, like cheese or nuts, inhibit the acidic plaque build-up. In addition, raw fruit and vegetables promote increased saliva flow because you have to chew your food more rigorously than soft food.

So while it’s not necessary to ban sugar from your diet for the sake of your teeth, it certainly helps to moderate your intake and dedicate yourself to practicing good oral hygiene. 

Priya Seetal is Nutrition Manager at SASA