There is nothing prettier, when flashing a smile, than a row of sparkling pearly whites and you were probably told, from the moment when you were presented with your first toothbrush, to brush twice daily and that sugar will rot your teeth! And chances are that you have heeded this advice and have harboured a pang of guilt whenever indulging in a piece of birthday cake or snacking on midnight chocolate. And should you be presented with a cavity – then it must all be attributed to the deadly matter long since associated with tooth rot: sugar!

So how accurate was that advice?

As usual the answer is never that simple. Science tells us that, while implicated in tooth decay, sugar is not the sole culprit causing rotten teeth or any other dental maladies. Rather, it can be a contributing agent when taken frequently and in forms that stay in the mouth for a long time when there is little saliva secreted…

Let’s uncomplicate this issue:

Everyone’s mouth is full of bacteria, a good deal of which is healthy and beneficial to the oral ecosystem. The problem occurs when bacteria in plaque (a sticky mass that forms on and between teeth) feeds off the carbohydrates or sugars left in your mouth from food. This creates an acid that erodes tooth enamel. This can cause cavities (or caries) and, without further preventative treatment, these cavities can eat through all the layers of the tooth causing complete rot and ultimately the loss of the entire tooth.

It’s not sugar that causes tooth rot but plaque! And before you go placing the blame squarely on your consumption of sweets and biscuits, it is also noted that the acids which cause caries can be manufactured from healthy carbohydrates found in whole grain foods like vegetables and fruit. In addition to which, phosphoric acid from sodas and citric acid found in fruits and concentrated fruit juice, also contribute to plaque formation.

So the prevention of tooth decay is best combated through good oral hygiene practices, which means how you take care of your teeth, especially after you have eaten food that causes the plaque build-up on and between your teeth.

Remember: your teeth and mouth are under constant attack from harmful bacteria and acids through a process called demineralisation. While acids leach minerals from the tooth enamel, these can just as easily be replaced and repaired. Saliva is one of these facilitating agents that assists in keeping your teeth strong and healthy. Saliva contains calcium and phosphates that repair teeth. In addition to saliva, fluoride is also an essential mineral that repairs compromised enamel.

How to maintain good oral hygiene – and prevent tooth decay

  • Eat well for a healthy mouth
    To maintain good oral hygiene and prevent tooth decay, it is a good idea to follow the South African Guidelines for Healthy Eating. See specifically the starchy food and sugar guidelines here! 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). Oral hygienists and the South African Dental Association (SADA) suggest limiting your sugar intake to prevent plaque build-up, but there are a host of other techniques that you should incorporate into your daily oral regime in order to prevent disease and maintain good oral hygiene. Remember that foods you may think are “tooth friendly” can still cause tooth decay eg. natural sugars like dried fruit, or foods that are labelled “no sugar added” but contain sugars (like pure fruit juice). Sugars from foods such as fruit juice, dried fruit, milk and starch containing foods that stick to teeth easily eg. bread, potato chips and crackers can also be fermented by bacteria, leading to acid production.
  • Brush twice daily
    Brushing your teeth (including your tongue) and rinsing your mouth, immediately after meals (at least twice a day), removes food remnants that aid in plaque build-up.
  • Use a fluoridated toothpaste
    This helps harden tooth enamel and reduces the risk of decay. In some places fluoride is found naturally in water but most people get the fluoride they need from toothpastes that have added fluoride. Fluoride is also found in some mouthwashes so check the labels.
  • Floss daily
    It helps to do this at night after supper when food may still be stuck to your teeth.
  • Don’t forget about visiting your dentist
    Regular dental check-ups are a must for making sure that your teeth are in good condition.

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.

Where possible, try to combine the consumption of fermented carbohydrates or sugars with your main meals so that the pH level in your mouth is lowered and the secretion of saliva is stimulated, which allows for an increase in the plaque calcium concentration.

So while it’s not necessary to ban sugar from your diet all for the sake of your teeth, it certainly helps to moderate your intake and dedicate yourself to practicing good oral hygiene. If you need more specific advice, we suggest that you speak with your dentist or oral hygienist to work out a customised dental plan that will best suit your lifestyle and diet.

If you would like to learn more about sugar and health, as well as get some tips for great recipes, take a look at: you, food and sugar.