Are Sweets Really the Culprit for Tooth Decay?

Colorful candy sweets in bowl
Candy is hard to resist! How bad is it for your teeth exactly?

This is a great question with a complicated answer.  Everyone has heard that sugar causes cavities.  But you may also know someone who has a serious sweet tooth problem and does not have “bad teeth”.    The forming of a cavity is a multi-factorial process, and sweets are just one of those factors.

In order for a tooth to suffer from decay, several conditions must be present.  This blog will explain the process of tooth decay, with a short section of how you can combat each of these conditions to lower your cavity risk.

Bacteria

Woman flossing in mirror
When it comes to controlling plaque, flossing is essential.

Tooth decay is an infectious disease, caused by bacteria. The bacteria that cause cavities live and multiply within clumps of dental plaque, the soft buildup that gathers on the teeth and gums.  Some people do have stronger variants of the cavity-causing bacteria than others do.  This puts them at a higher risk for cavities.

In order to lower the risk posed by these bacteria, you must reduce the overall amount of bacteria by removing dental plaque.  This means practicing great oral hygiene every single day.  You must brush every morning after breakfast as you start your day, and every night before bed.  Ask your dental hygienist for tips to make sure you are using the correct technique.

When it comes to plaque control, flossing is an absolute essential.  You must floss every night before bed to remove the bacteria from between the teeth.

Refined Carbohydrates

Here is where the sweets come in.  But it isn’t just sugary, sweet snacks that lead to cavities.  Any simple or refined carbohydrates act as food for the bacteria.  Candy is a common culprit because it has a high sugar content and a sticky texture allowing it to adhere to the teeth.

Cavity-causing bacteria ingest (or eat) simple carbohydrates and make acid as a by-product.  When this acid stays in contact with tooth enamel, it works to soften and weaken enamel, which allows the bacteria to penetrate further into a tooth.  You can reduce this effect by “starving” the bacteria when you eliminate sugar and other simple carbs from your diet.

Tooth Structure

This may seem a little obvious, but you can only get cavities when you have teeth in your mouth.  Enamel is the hardest substance in the human body, but it is not invincible.  It is susceptible to attacks from acid.  The roots of teeth do not have an enamel coating, so they are even more susceptible to cavities.

Dentist holding Fluoride sign
Fluoride is extremely important for proper dental care!

Protecting your teeth from cavities involves maintaining a neutral pH in your mouth to fight the acid produced by bacteria.  Saliva is naturally a mild base, so it counteracts the acid produced by bacteria in a healthy mouth.  You can protect your neutral pH by avoiding acidic drinks and treating any dry mouth issues you may have.

You can also strengthen your enamel and root structure to withstand the acid attacks by using fluoride toothpaste and mouthrinse.  Fluoride helps teeth fight acid and bacteria and prevents cavities.

Time

Cavities do not form after one candy bar.  It takes time for the bacteria to produce enough acid from the sugar to work its way into a tooth.  This is why you NEVER want to skip a day of oral hygiene.  That just gives the bacteria more time to work on weakening your enamel.

This is also why sipping on sugary drinks like sodas leads to a much higher cavity risk than eating a cookie after dinner.  That soda puts sugar and acid in contact with your teeth for hours, while a cookie is gone in just a few minutes.

This issue of time is also the reason that certain candies like taffy and caramel are more likely to cause cavities. They remain in the pits and grooves of teeth for much longer than a piece of chocolate.

In order to reduce the risk of cavities, consider the timing of your sugar intake.  Drinking a soda with a meal poses a much lower risk for cavities than sipping on one throughout the afternoon.  Sucking on a piece of hard candy is worse for your teeth than quickly chewing up a small candy bar.  In fact, the length of time that you expose your teeth to sugar is more important than the actual amount of sugar you intake.

More Questions about Cavities?

Does this help you understand how someone with a sweet tooth can still have good teeth?  Or how someone with relatively low sugar intake can get lots of cavities from using peppermints to help with dry mouth?  If you have more questions, please call our office to schedule a consultation.  We will assess your unique cavity risk and help you make choices to lower that risk.