A healthy and nutritious diet is incredibly important to maintain strong teeth and healthy gums. Just imagine how pleasant our visits to the dentist would be if we had no cavities!
Now here’s a fun fact; the ability of a food to cause dental caries is known as it’s “cariogenicity”. Obviously some foods are more cariogenic than others, and many factors play a role (such as how frequently the food is consumed, the form of the food or the length of time the food is in your mouth).
So how do we know which foods are going to cause both us and our dentists grief?
The Cariogenic Culprits
Sugar and foods with a high concentration of fermentable carbohydrates
All the scientific literature singles out sugar as the major contributor to dental caries formation. Before sugar consumption increased, dental caries was a rather uncommon condition. Sugar and fermentable carbohydrates (e.g. sucrose, lactose, and sugar alcohols such as sorbitol and manitol) feed the natural bacteria in your mouth and trigger the production of acid. A high level of acid in your mouth can lead to the breakdown of your teeth’s outer shell (enamel), weaking of the teeth and increasing your chances of decay.
Most carbohydrates break down into food for your bacteria so this can technically happen with most of your starches. For example whole wheat bread is more acid-forming than dates, raisin or bananas! The take-home here is that you should cut down on the dietary forms of sugar and avoid excess intake of foods such as biscuits, hot and cold cereals, cakes, and breads. Other obvious ones to avoid include fruit drinks, sodas, iced teas and other sugar-sweetened beverages.
Actually all dietary forms of sugar, including honey, molasses, brown sugar, and corn syrup solids, have cariogenic potential. Maltose, found in candies, doughnuts, potato chips, crackers, and other snack foods also contributes to a food’s carcinogenic potential. Sticky sugars that cling to the teeth are worse than sugars that are easily swallowed.
The potential for dental decay also rises with frequent consumption of fermentable carbohydrates. Frequent slow sipping of a drink or constant snacking therefore allows acid levels to remain at a peak for a long time.
Foods that are more sticky and retentive, like toffee, are more cariogenic than foods that are liquid or non-retentive. So try to cut down on foods that stay in the mouth much longer than usual e.g. breads, raisins, peanut butter and toffee. Liquid foods tend to be cleared much faster, but be aware of the sugar content! Chewy foods, such as sugar-sweetened chewing gum and marshmallows, although high in sugar actually stimulate saliva production which decreases their cariogenic potential.
Foods that dissolve slowly
Think candies, lollipops, and breath mints. This repeated and prolonged exposure can also increase the likelihood of dental caries.
The Neutral Foods
We classify foods that do not contribute to decay or cause an increased acid production in the mouth “cariostatic”. Basically these are in the green zone when it comes to dental caries. Cariostatic foods include protein foods (such as eggs, fish, meat and poultry), most vegetables (the non-starchy kind), fats and sugar-free gum (preferably with xylitol as the sweetener).
The Anti-Cariogenic Team
These foods are not just in the green zone, they’re in the war zone to prevent dental caries! Anti-cariogenic foods help prevent plaque formation and prevent excess acid formation.
Sugar-free chewing gum with xylitol
Xylitol helps to reduce decay because it increases salivary flow. It is thus recommended after meals and snacks, and it is also a replacement for the harmful sugars in your diet.
Milk and dairy products such as cheese are anti-cariogenic because (a) lactose (the sugar in dairy) is the least cariogenic of dietary sugars, (b) the casein content and, possibly fat content, are protective, and (c) the presence of calcium and phosphorous also play a protective role.
Some protein-rich foods
Meat, nuts and legumes are actually converted to alkaline products by oral bacteria which suggests they have protective properties against dental decay.
Oils, butter and natural fats in fish, nuts and seeds may also be beneficial in preventing dental caries because they decrease the “stickiness” of foods and enhance food clearance from the teeth.
Drinking water frequently throughout the day can actually increase the rate at which foods are cleared from your mouth which helps to normalise acid levels quicker.
Quick Take-Home Tips
– rinse your mouth with water after meals and snacks
– cut down on the sugar, toffees and lollipops
– chew xylitol-sweetened gum after meals or snacks
– limit sugar-sweetened beverages and acidic drinks such as sports drinks, juices and sodas
– snack on anti-cariogenic foods such as fresh vegetables, cheese and nuts
– eat a balanced and varied diet full of REAL foods (i.e. unprocessed and as natural as possible)