Tooth decay is caused by sugar.
It is a disease traceable far away back in the human history (Australopithecus), but it’s with the modern crazy habit of adding sugar everywhere that tooth decay has exploded. 90% of the population experiences caries in their lifetime. I am in it.
Sugar feeds the bacteria present in our mouth. Bacteria produce acid. Acid erodes the enamel. It’s simple. And once the enamel is eroded to a point that a hole forms in the tooth surface, there is little hope for decay not to appear. With all the foods that pass in the mouth daily, imagine all the stuff that goes in and out the hole.
A tooth is in a constant process of mineralization (thanks to saliva, fluoride toothpaste) and demineralization (“thanks” to the acids). The hole is formed when demineralization is faster than mineralization. So the key question is: what are the foods responsible for a too fast demineralization?
Here we go with the top 10 causes of tooth decay.
1. STICKY CANDIES
These are evil. Super dangerous because they stick to the surface of the teeth for long time. A key criterion that decides how harmful a food is for decay is time. How much time teeth are exposed to sugar, and consequently exposed to the acids.
Now visualize the image of you trying to suck these candies away from the teeth, using the tongue for minutes. They are so sticky and it’s hard (despite sweet) to remove them. This is what I am talking about. Worst choice.
Examples: gummy bears, licorice candies, sour candies, jellies.
Super bad choice. Again, the problem is the exposure period. Lollipops are all sugar and even if they are not sticky, they last for minutes and tens of minutes. Some of them are so big that last for hours.
Visualize the poor unaware kid, whose parents bought a super-size lollipop at the amusement park. He will spend the whole day continuously feeding the bacteria in his mouth by licking it.
3. HARD CANDIES
They are an awful thing to eat anyway. Today, cigarette producers have to write on their packages causes cancer and death. I dream a day where candy producers will have to write on their packages causes tooth decay and teeth death.
4. MILK CHOCOLATE
Milk chocolate is preferred by the vast majority of people because it is sweeter (it has more sugar) and creamier (it has milk powder). Cocoa and sugar are added in inverse percentages in chocolate: 75% cocoa means 25% sugar, 65% cocoa means 35% sugar.
The harm that chocolate do to teeth vary depending on many factors, for example a filling of glue-like sugary substance makes it worse. But I rate 4th the simple milk chocolate for an additional reason over the sugar content: the pervasiveness. It melts in the mouth and reaches every hollow space between the teeth.
This is a big category, but I consider here all the sweets that combine two damaging elements for teeth. In fact, beside tons of sugar, they usually have a foundation made with white flour. And does white flour promote tooth decay too? Definitely yes. I will explain it later with white bread.
Examples: pies, muffins, cookies, tarts, donuts…and infinite other types.
Notice the quotation marks.
But these things have nothing to do with real cereals. They are non-foods, extra processed and depleted of all the nutrients. They are packed with colorants, preservatives, sugar. In my trips to America and Canada I was horrified to see immense shelves of these at the supermarkets.
Names like “Special something” don’t make them especially good for your health, just make them especially useless in terms of nutrition… and especially dangerous for tooth decay.
7. WHITE BREAD
It’s a common misconception that only the foods that taste sweet contain sugar.
There are many starchy foods (pasta, rice, chips, tortillas) but I consider white bread as the emblem of the refined foods category because it is so common. People consume so much of it daily.
The most dangerous for teeth is the sliced white bread with mushy consistency used for sandwiches. Very unhealthy bread.
8. ICE CREAM
Ice cream is risky because you stay there licking and sucking sugar for minutes, thus -again- feeding the bacteria for awhile. They can be less damaging than the previous foods because of their soft consistency. They flow away easily in the oral tract.
But some have syrups, nuts, candied sprinkled all over their surface: these increase the detriment for the teeth.
9. SOFT DRINKS
Soft drinks like Cola and Energy Drinks are terrible for health in general, and for the teeth of course. I saw some videos showing how many spoons of sugar a soda can contain: it was shocking to see it explicitly.
Their “advantage” (to say so, but remember that this is a list of atrocities) over the upper foods is that they are liquids, so the teeth are flooded by a sugary river when you drink and stop.
The troubles happen when you drink repeatedly during the day. Then soda can become a much more determinant factor in the formation of cavities.
For similar reasons: sugary juices and tea
Two observations about popular sauces like ketchup, mayonnaise and salad dressings.
First, they are not popularly associated to sweets, but they are sweets. It is just that they also contain so many other strong flavors that the person’s taste is distracted and does not focus on the sweet.
Second, even if sauces are not among the worst tooth decay causes, they become a factor when used in conjunction with bread, chips, tortillas, and other foods that are already harmful by themselves.
This top 10 is not omni-comprehensive.
Many other foods could have been considered: unfortunately there are thousands of convincing candidates produced by the sugar industry. Some foods could rank higher or lower depending on condiments, fillings, preparation methods. There are midway possibilities between these shown, for example white bread coated with chocolate cream.
Natural foods like fruit could have been considered as well. Fruit is wonderful for health but it contains sugar too, and bacteria do not discriminate between processed or natural. They use it anyway.
However, I still think this simple list is very useful to understand the judgment necessary to decide which foods are dangerous for our teeth. Sugar amount, stickiness, exposure time are important factors that determine the birth of tooth decay.
SLEEP AFTER EATING
Another crucial factor.
Not a food itself but a big ally of the foods listed above: sleep. This is a very important point that I don’t see highlighted often enough, or explained too clearly.
Do you know they usually say to brush your teeth after eating? Commonly after breakfast, lunch and dinner? I really feel like recommending you this: pay extra attention to the after dinner brushing. Never forget. And brush your teeth whenever you are about to go to sleep, even if it is a nap in the afternoon.
Sleep is extremely dangerous for the teeth, especially in proximity of a meal. Why is that?
When you sleep saliva diminishes. There is not the flow that you have when you are awake. All the swallowing and the tongue movements are significantly reduced.
If you eat something, do not brush, go to sleep right after, there will be not much saliva protecting you with its buffering function. Sugar will not be diluted but will stay there around your teeth. Bacteria will work silently and effectively, destroying your teeth.
This is how many dental caries happen. A good example is baby bottle tooth decay, a common issue for babies. Mothers leave their children with bottles of sugary liquids like milk (lactose is a sugar), juices and formulas. The babies sleep right after sucking, and it’s done.
For example I usually brush my teeth twice a day, after breakfast and after dinner. I eat less sugar than many people so I can afford not to brush my teeth after lunch. But if some day I don’t work and want to take a nap after lunch, I add the third brushing.
I spent ten years of my life struggling with cavities, approximately from age 10 to age 20.
All my molars and some front teeth now have fillings.
My mother was not aware of the information I discussed so far, and fed me with all sorts of sugary snacks.
I remember going periodically to the dentist to cure my cavities as a teenager. I think I considered normal to have dental caries from time to time. My dentist used to say with not much emphasis that I should have reduced sweets.
In a typical day I had cookies or “cereals” in the milk for breakfast, sugary snacks at school, other sugary snacks after lunch, things like pane e nutella in the mid afternoon. No surprise my teeth were continuously at stake.
Around age 20 I had the nth filling and thought “what the hell? This is not normal and has to finish!”. I simply decided to cut sweets completely. That was a great decision not only for my teeth but for my mental and physical health in general, but I will discuss this in other articles.
Now is about ten years since I ate my last piece of chocolate or cake, and never developed new dental caries in the period. I know it’s “slightly” drastic, but I am used to this kind of extremities about health. Of course I am not saying you have to do the same. What I am saying is that it worked.
It proved clearly that it was not genetics, it was not that I had a weak enamel. It was just that…
Tooth decay is caused by sugar.