Sugar Attack? Fight Back!

Kathleen Bowers

by Kathleen Bowers | August 10, 2010 @ 01:00PM

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Your mother told you to avoid sweets, and brush after every meal. And guess what? She was right. Each year, more and more studies reveal the ways that sugars ravage dental health. Read on to find out how sugar attacks your teeth and gums and, more importantly, how to fight back.

How does sugar damage teeth?

As unattractive as it may sound, there is always some amount of bacteria growing in our mouths. Some of these bacteria are harmless, but others cause tooth decay, bad breath, and gum disease.

Clean teeth make it difficult for bacteria to grow. Brushing and flossing can help achieve this result by frequently disrupting the growth of bacteria. Limiting sugar intake helps too. Here's why.

Two common types of bacteria, Streptococcus mutans and Streptococcus sanguis, compete for room to grow in the mouth. S. mutans causes tooth decay, gum disease, and bad breath. S. sanguis doesn't.

A high-sugar diet causes the damaging S. mutans to thrive. A low-sugar diet, along with the frequent disruption of plaque (brushing and flossing), promotes the growth of the harmless S. sanguis – which, in turn, crowds out the harmful S. mutans.

Do I have to avoid all sugar?

No. But you should follow some simple strategies for controlling the damage of S. mutans in your mouth. For children, the main threat is tooth decay. For adults, the gum disease (and bad breath) is typically a greater cause for concern.

Here's how to help. Brush and floss after consuming anything containing sugar. If it's not possible to brush immediately afterward, rinse your mouth thoroughly with water. Or brush immediately before consuming the sugar. That way you will remove the plaque that the bacteria need in order to fasten on to tooth surfaces. Brush your tongue, too, to control bad breath and the spread of these bacteria.

Is there anything else I can do to stop the growth of these dangerous bacteria?

Yes. Eating certain foods can promote the growth of S. sanguis, which will crowd out the harmful S. mutans. Peanuts and cheese are especially effective. Also, foods containing calcium, and dental products containing fluoride, have a protective effect.

Recently, scientists have begun to learn about the helpful effects of certain other food substances on dental health. Potent antioxidants called flavoinoids appear to aid in dental health. Flavinoids are found in beans, nuts and grains, as well as in the colored parts of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Flavinoids help by reducing inflammation, preventing the release of histamine (which causes allergy symptoms), fighting free radicals, increasing immunity, and increasing healthy blood flow. One study showed that cranberries have a protective effect on teeth and gums. Another showed that wasabi, that spicy green-paste condiment with sushi, has protective qualities.

Are some sugars more damaging to teeth and gums than others?

Yes and no. Sugar is sugar – whether it's the sucrose that comes from cane or the fructose that comes from corn. Fruit juices contain sugar and water and are no better for your teeth than soda pop drinks. The higher the sugar content in food, the greater the risk of cavities. A high starch content is also damaging. Starches are quickly converted to sugars in the mouth.

But there are some sugary products that are worse than others, and certain situations are better for the teeth than others. For example, sticky or dry foods adhere to teeth, making sugar even more damaging. The longer a sugary food remains in the mouth, the greater the risk of decay and/or periodontal (gum) disease. Sipping a high-sugar drink slowly is more damaging than drinking it quickly. (If you must have your sugary drink, try drinking carefully through a straw, keeping the liquid in the center of your mouth, away from teeth and gums.) Slowly sucking on hard candy is worse than quickly chewing and swallowing a softer candy, like chocolate. And although many people believe that raisins are healthier than chocolate, they can cause a higher incidence for tooth decay, due to their adherence to the tooth's surface for long periods of time.

The sequence that foods are eaten in is also important. If you eat sugary foods during meals, the saliva production is increased, thereby neutralizing most of the sugars. And if you eat other foods, like cheese, afterward, you further reduce the risk of cavities. Drinking water afterward also helps. Carefully brushing and flossing immediately is the best defense of all.

How can I tell which pre-packaged food products contain added sugar?

To find out if sugars have been added, and if vitamins and minerals are lacking, get into the habit of reading the list of ingredients on packaged foods. They are always listed in descending order, according to quantity. Watch out for the ingredients listed below. They are all forms of sugar:

  • Brown sugar
  • Invert sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Lactose
  • Malt syrup
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Maltose
  • Molasses
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Raw sugar
  • Cane sugar
  • Beet sugar
  • Sucrose
  • Glucose
  • Maple syrup
  • Barley malt
  • Rice syrup
  • Unfiltered raw honey

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