With Halloween fast approaching, it is that time of year when sugary snacks and treats are eaten in abundance by ‘trick or treaters’ all around the country. But please do not worry, we are not advocating a ban on sweets. In fact, sugar is a necessary source of dietary energy, but the frequency and quantity of sugar consumption is the main cause of tooth decay. Prevention of tooth decay requires the sensible use of sugar, rather than its total elimination from the diet.
How does sugar cause tooth decay?
Plaque is a sticky layer of bacteria that coats the surface of the teeth. This bacteria digests the sugar that we eat to produce an acid that effectively dissolves holes in the teeth. The teeth are exposed to this acid for up to 30 minutes after eating or drinking sugary foods or drinks.
Saliva helps to neutralise the acid and fluoride in toothpaste and water helps to repair the damage caused by the acid. However, if you constantly snack on sugary foods or drinks, then the repair time is not sufficient to stop tooth decay. Once decay has started, you will need to have it removed with treatment so that the tooth can be restored. Preventing tooth decay requires good dietary habits as well as fluoride toothpaste and effective brushing techniques.
Types of sugars
There are a number of sugars in food, but dentists are only concerned about a few of them…
Lactose – found in milk and plain natural yoghurt. This is less harmful to the teeth than other sugars.
Fructose (fruit sugar) – found in all types of fruit. This is not seen as a threat to the teeth in this form.
Non-milk extrinsic sugars — removed from the foods natural structure by processing. These sugars cause tooth decay. They include table sugars, confectionery, and cakes, and are also in soft drinks and syrups. They are commonly known as sucrose, maltose, dextrose, syrup, and honey
Sucrose — is the most harmful and most widely used. The fact that sugar is obtained ‘naturally’ from fruit, for example, does not make it safe.
How can the risk of decay be minimised?
From a dental viewpoint, the key dietary message is to eat sugar less often. Sugar attacks the teeth every time it enters the mouth, so limiting the number of times this happens reduces the risk of decay.
Restricting sugary foods and drinks to mealtimes is the most realistic advice.
For most people though, quantity and frequency go hand in hand: if you enjoy a lot of sugar then you will probably consume a lot of sugar.
A large amount of sugar is consumed in ‘hidden’ form like ketchup and cereal, which are not normally regarded as sweet or dentally harmful.
Where these foods are eaten at mealtimes, the sugar content is less of a concern. Snacks are the real problem and encouraging you to consume less sugar in snack foods and drinks is our main priority.
Is there anything else I should know?
- Keep sugary foods and drinks to mealtimes
- Between meals, give children appropriate sugar-free jelly or any sugar-free confectionery
- Cut down on the frequency of acidic drinks such as fruit juices, fizzy drinks and fruit flavoured drinks
- Brush teeth twice daily with a pea-sized amount of fluoride toothpaste
- Chew sugar-free chewing gum after meals
- Ensure they see their dentist every 6 months
- Always ask their doctor to prescribe sugar-free medications
For more information on the damaging effects of sugar… Please contact our patient coordinator Jaime, on 01452 727 665 or email: [email protected].
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