Whenever a grammar-school class is learning about dental health, the go-to experiment is to place a slice of bologna in a glass of soda and watch as the beverage slowly disintegrates the lunch meat. “If the soda can do that to meat,” says the teacher, “imagine what it can do to your teeth.”
When dentists talk about protecting your teeth, it’s the enamel they’re concerned about: that hard outer layer that protects the sensitive inner parts of the tooth. Dental enamel is the hardest tissue in the human body, but it’s not impervious to damage. Since enamel is translucent, it’s susceptible to stains from red wine, cigarettes, and coffee, and some of the things we eat can not only discolor it but also actually erode it. Once the enamel is damaged, it’s damaged for good—the cells can’t repair themselves—so it’s better to prevent that damage before it happens. Certain foods are more likely to cause enamel erosion than others, and some of the most common culprits may surprise you:
- Smoothies. Fruit in any form might be good for your body, but it’s not especially great for your teeth, since it’s loaded with simple sugars. Fruit smoothies are particularly dangerous, since people tend to sip them over long periods of time. They’re full of citric acid, which can cause damage if consumed regularly. Likewise, any fruit juice—especially citrus juice—can cause similar damage.
- Sour candy. No candy is considered “tooth-friendly,” but sweets like Sour Patch Kids, Sour Skittles, Lemonheads, and Starburst are especially acidic.
- Pickles. Pickle juice, or brine, is highly acidic, breaking down tooth enamel if pickles are consumed in large quantities.
- Clear soda. It’s common knowledge that the sugar in soda can erode enamel and the coloring in cola-type sodas can cause stains. However, clear sodas like Sprite, 7UP, ginger ale, and others are actually more harmful, because they contain more citric and ascorbic acids. In a study at the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine, human teeth soaked in clear colas lost more of their weight than teeth soaked in brown sodas did. The study also found that the least harmful soda for teeth is root beer, because it’s not carbonated and doesn’t contain phosphoric or citric acid.
- Raisins. Although they contain beneficial antioxidants and are generally considered a healthy snack, raisins’ high sugar content and natural stickiness make them poor choices for dental health.
- Sports drinks. A 2007 study at the New York University College of Dentistry found that teeth exposed to sports drinks suffered from more wear and erosion than teeth exposed to neutral beverages. Even though sports drinks are usually clear and noncarbonated, the researchers hypothesized that the citric acid commonly found in them was the culprit.
- Yogurt. They may provide probiotics and beneficial bacteria, but yogurt and other fermented foods also contain lactic acid, which can erode teeth.
Do Damage Control
The solution isn’t to completely avoid every food that contains acid or sugar, which could leave you on a pretty restricted diet. The solution is to know how to mitigate the damage those compounds do to your teeth, and to protect your teeth both before and after you consume the offending foods. The Mayo Clinic recommends taking the following precautions:
- Limit consumption. Try to consume acidic or sugary foods in moderation.
- Time consumption. Eat acidic foods as part of a larger meal, which can help dilute and neutralize the acid.
- Drink right. When drinking beverages that can erode or stain, sip them through a straw to minimize their contact with your teeth. Never swish beverages around in your mouth.
- Neutralize. After eating one of the offending foods, rinse your mouth with water to help rinse away and dilute the acid. Eating a piece of cheese can also help.
- Time your brushing. The best time to brush is before you consume acidic or sugary foods. After eating, it’s important to wait before brushing, since the sugar and acid can remain on teeth for about an hour. If you brush immediately afterward, the enamel will be softened and the act of brushing could cause further abrasions. Use a toothpaste with fluoride to strengthen the teeth.
- Chew sugar-free gum. This stimulates saliva production, which can neutralize and dilute the acid in the mouth.
If you notice that your teeth are feeling especially sensitive to heat and cold, seem yellow or discolored, or develop cracks and chips, they may already be losing enamel. Some people are more susceptible to enamel loss, including those with dry mouth or Sjögren’s disease, those with acid reflux disease or other gastrointestinal problems, people who often swim in chlorinated pools, people suffering from bulimia, and people who grind their teeth or bite their fingernails.
We may be trained to think of these offending foods as healthier alternatives, but what’s healthy for our bodies may not necessarily be healthy for our teeth. Once enamel is gone, there’s not much to be done except try to prevent further loss and, in advanced cases, install crowns or veneers. So, as with most things health-related, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of restorative dental work.