It’s not just sugar that may be causing cavities!

added on: June 18, 2014

When I graduated from dental school in 1986, I anticipated that during my career as a dentist tooth decay would be nearly eliminated thanks to fluoridated water and toothpastes, the development of an anti-cavity “vaccine,” and an increased public awareness of the relationship between sugar consumption and tooth decay.

The reality is many of my patients have more dental decay than ever! Why is this happening?

I believe the “added sugars” and “syrups” in processed food results in people getting more sugar, leading to more dental decay. In addition, some foods you would not considered “sweet” are broken down into sugars in your mouth, creating another source of sugars for tooth decay. You may be getting more sugar than you realize!

The food industry knows that three items in the right combination create a desire to consume processed foods – sugar, fat and salt. In his book The End of Overeating, Dr. David Kessler outlines how this creates an “addictive-like” behavior for processed foods, e.g. someone may eat a whole bag of M&M’s or Doritos at one time (processed foods), but not eat 3-4 apples at once (natural foods). When medical research in the 1970’s and 1980’s indicated that a diet high in fat was unhealthy, the food industry began to add more sugar to foods to enhance the flavor missed by removing the fat.

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The American Heart Association recommends no more than 100 calories per day for women and 150 calories per day for men for added sugars, which translates to about 6 teaspoons of sugar per day. The Mayo Clinic reports that most Americans get more than 22 teaspoons of sugar per day in added sugars.

To understand how much added sugar you are getting in processed foods, you must read the nutrition label on the side of the package – under carbohydrates, sugars are measured in grams per serving. Simply divide the numbers of grams by four to get the teaspoons of sugar per serving. For example, one Weight Watchers Blueberry Muffin has 18-21 grams of sugar or 4-5 teaspoons! Other foods with added sugars that may surprise you are McDonald’s French fries, sports drinks, salad dressings, Greek yogurt, instant oatmeal, frozen pizza, etc.

We know about the sugar present in soda, cake, candy, ice cream, pie, etc. Did you know that foods such as bread, cereals, pasta, crackers, and potato chips, if left in the mouth for long periods of time can also cause tooth decay? These foods are called complex carbohydrates, which means they are simply long strings of sugar molecules. If you do not brush your teeth after eating these types of foods, the bacteria that live in your mouth break down the food into sugars. So, a sandwich and chips may cause decay.

And of course dental decay is the not the only health issue excess sugar consumption creates. Diabetes, heart disease and obesity have been directly related to the American diet high in processed foods. What to do? Stick to natural foods and snacks; read labels to know and limit how much sugar you are really eating; and understand the relationship between the high amounts of sugar in processed foods and its risks to our health.

If you’re getting cavities at your dental visits, check the added sugars in your diet!