Consuming sugar causes tooth decay leading to cavities. We all know this, yet we still eat it, and apparently in far too large proportions, according to leading UK dental researchers. Recently, dentists as a collective have advised the nation to cut its sugar intake by 75% to 4 teaspoons per day. But how exactly does sugar damage the teeth, and how can we ensure we don’t over-indulge?
Why we consume too much sugar
So, where does the problem stem from? Dental experts suggest that our excess of sugar is largely due to eating processed foods containing large amounts of unnecessary, added sugars. Common examples are fizzy drinks, such as Coca Cola, which contains a shocking nine teaspoons of sugar, and digestive biscuits, containing four teaspoons in just two biscuits.
Although the food industry has been responding to increased consumer awareness of the issues associated with this, many products flouting ‘no added sugar’ labels, it doesn’t seem we are doing enough to cut our daily sugar intake. We may not realise it, but added sugar is present in almost every non-fresh food we eat, so we may be eating far more than the Guideline Daily Allowance without even knowing.
What is the problem with eating sugary foods?
When we consume products containing sugars and other carbohydrates, the food particles left of teeth form plaque. This combines with bacteria in the mouth called streptococcus which then breaks down to produce acids that damage the tooth enamel and cause decay. A main issue here is exposure time – the saliva usually washes away most of the food on the visible tooth surfaces, however, food can become lodged in the crevices in molars and between teeth more long periods of time, allowing the acids to damage the teeth.
This is a problem for not only adults, but also for children, whose milk teeth are more delicate and prone to decay. Research suggests that around a third of children under 12 in the UK have visible tooth decay largely due to eating too many sugary sweets and improper brushing routines. Therefore establishing low sugar levels as a part of a healthy diet, and also teaching good brushing techniques, is incredibly important in ensuring that the next generation have healthy teeth, and attitudes towards dental hygiene, as they grow up.
The solutions to the sugar problem
A number of solutions to the nation-wide issue of excess sugar consumption have been proposed. One such option has been put forwards in an “Options for Action” document by several medical and dental organisations detailing the idea of a sugar tax similar to that applied to alcohol and cigarettes. The study predicts that a 20% tax on products such as fizzy drinks would reduce UK obesity by more than 250,000 cases, along with significantly reducing visible decay cases. The government’s chief medical official, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has expressed an interest in this call for sugar tax, stating that it may be a viable option for dramatically improving British citizens’ health.
Fluoride has also been added to many water supplies in recent years to reduce the dental effects of sugary diets, but experts advise that this alone is not sufficient to tackle the issues at hand. Switching to sugar-free options is certainly one approach, but it is suggested that some food manufacturers simply replace the sugars with other harmful chemicals such as polyols that may have just as bad an effect on oral hygiene, and be dangerous to the body of a long-term basis.
How to protect your teeth from sugar
Whether or not the government decides to implement new restrictive measures on sugar sales, there are a number of simple ways to protect your teeth from sugar-induced decay. First of all, as you may expect, is to limit the amount of sugar to the 4 teaspoons per day that expert dentists are now suggesting. Whether it be taking tea and coffee without that sweetening spoonful, restricting post-meal snacks to one per day, or cutting portion sizes, there are a number of ways to do this without causing cravings. Switching to a completely sugar-free gum, swapping squash for plain water, substituting milk for dark chocolate (which may be good for teeth in small quantities plus is much better for the body and releases same endorphins with smaller portions) are all very good ways to cut your sugar intake.
Watch out for different sugar compounds on packaging, such as glucose, sucrose, honey, dextrose, fructose, maltose and hydrolysed starch or syrup. It is also good to know that products considered ‘high in sugar’ are those containing more than 15g of sugar for every 100g of product, whereas products you might want to consider choosing instead that are low in sugar would contain less than 5g of sugar for every 100g of product.
Proper brushing methods are also key in preventing decay. The manner in which dentists have advised patients to brush has changed over the past ten years, from ‘up and down’ to ‘circles’, to brushing at a 45 degree angle against the gumline. Your dentist may advise different approaches based on the condition of your teeth – for example, if you have receded gums they may suggest placing the flat side of the brush against your gumline and sweeping upwards as though you were attempting to bring the gums back up.
There are a number of helpful guides and videos to good brushing protocol on the internet, but it is fundamental to brush at least twice a day, for two minutes, gently but thoroughly with Fluoride toothpaste. It is also advised to brush your teeth after consuming particularly sugary foods such as sweets or citrus fruits, as the juices from these can damage your teeth throughout the day otherwise.
A handy video on tooth-brushing techniques:
Regular flossing and mouthwash use are also essential. You should aim to floss every evening, between every tooth, with waxed floss strips of about 45cm in length. A gentle rocking motion in advised curving in a C-shape, rather than pulling, as this can damage gums. Flossing is important as it removes food particles from between your teeth and underneath the gum-line, which brushing alone cannot do. Sugary foods not removed by flossing with produce plaque and decay the teeth.
Use a Fluoride-based mouthwash twice a day, too, to keep your teeth protected from sugar decay. Do not use mouthwash straight after brushing, as some toothpastes can inhibit it from working. Either choose a different time of the day to use mouthwash or thoroughly rinse your mouth out with water before using. You should swill the mouthwash for about 30 seconds each time to protect from decay and gum disease.