Earlier this month on our office Facebook page, I posted a link to a media release debunking several dental myths. Since then, I’ve seen quite a few articles focusing on just one of them: the belief that more sugar means more cavities.
Why focus on this? Maybe it’s because it can be spun to suggest that it’s okay to eat all the sugar you want so long as you brush and floss afterwards. (Of course, sugar contributes to a host of other health problems, some of which can contribute to other dental and periodontal problems, but they’re not mentioned.)
After all, in and of itself, sugar does not cause cavities. So why do dentists recommend avoiding it? It’s the preferred food of the oral bacteria that live in your mouth. Their acidic waste products are what cause decay, as explained in this humorous video:
Importantly, the sugars that microbes love aren’t just “obvious” ones like table sugar and high fructose corn syrup. All carbohydrates can be broken down into sugars. What’s more, many carbs – especially processed carbs – tend to stick to the teeth, giving the oral bacteria plenty of opportunity to feed on them – at least until you brush and floss, which both removes food particles and breaks up the microbial colonies that form the biofilm most people call “plaque.”
A recent article in Caries Research highlights the point. Looking for links exist between snacking behaviors and caries (the clinical name for “cavities”), researchers studied the snacking habits and dental health of more than 1200 American preschoolers. Unsurprisingly, those who ate the most sweet snacks, chips and especially chips with a sugared drink had a higher rate of caries than those who consumed less of such things. The team also found that those who ate chips tended to eat more sweet snacks, including candies and ice cream. All of these foods are ones that tend stick to the teeth or, in the case of sweetened drinks, bathe them in sugars – two factors that tend to increase the length of time the teeth are exposed to sugars, and thus the opportunities for microbes to feed and excrete their cavity-causing acids.
Interestingly, this matter of sugar and cavities was not the crux of the Nutrition Today article touted in the “6 Myths” media release, the title of which expresses its broader focus: “It’s More Than Just Candy: Important Relationships Between Nutrition and Oral Health.” Here’s the abstract:
Oral problems can affect and be affected by both diet and systemic nutrition. Dental caries (tooth decay) remains the most prevalent disease of children: 7 times more common than hay fever and five times more common than childhood asthma. The mouth is an early indicator of general health and nutritional status; clinical signs and symptoms of nutritional and other health problems frequently appear first in the oral cavity. Conversely, oral problems can have profound effects on nutritional status. Emerging research is revealing even more important relationships between nutrition and oral health issues and chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and immune-compromising conditions. Health care professionals should help their patients by asking patients about oral health concerns and referring patients for dental consults when indicated. Promoting good oral health as well as good nutrition is essential to optimal overall health status.
To which we can only say, yes, exactly.