The rise of sugary drinks like soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and even fruit juices has led to a host of corresponding health issues. Among these health challenges is the damage caused to teeth by sugary drinks. In my world, sugary drinks is a catch-all term for fizzy soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and fruit juice.
As a dentist with the Gold Coast’s longest operating dental practice, over time, my colleagues and I have seen the changes wrought in patients’ oral and overall health by these high sugar content beverages. Unfortunately, the changes aren’t for the better.
Increasingly, we see the long term damaging effects of sugary drinks like soft drinks presenting as irreversible damage: physical wear and tear, erosion of tooth enamel, and decay. I attribute much of this to the way sugary drinks have become very much a part of life. So much so that we barely give a thought to what we’re drinking. Where we may have been happy with a glass of water, statistics show we’re more likely to reach for a soft drink.
I think of one patient – a soccer player who trains three days a week and backs up with a game on weekends. His team, sponsored by an energy drink company, has access to large volumes of the sports drink the company produces. Players readily consume these sports drinks believing they are getting valuable electrolytes needed to enhance performance. The reality is the sugar and acidic environment created by these drinks, combined with dehydration, reduced saliva and clenching of teeth during play create the perfect platform for teeth to be damaged.
It may sound like I’m stating the obvious, however sugary drinks have few redeeming features. Most of us know and accept this fact, but what I’ve found with patients at our Benowa dental practice, is they don’t really understand why.
Let’s delve into the detail beneath the stealthy attack that sugary drinks wreak on one of our most precious assets: our teeth.
What’s the big deal with sugary drinks anyway?
Sugary drinks can’t shoulder all the blame for damage to teeth. Every time we consume something, whether it’s solid or liquid, there is an impact on our teeth. Depending on the abrasiveness or acidity of what we’re consuming, this impact can be physical (wear and tear) or chemical (erosion or dissolving of the tooth) trauma.
Although it’s happening right before our eyes, the changes which occur are microscopic and cumulative. This means we don’t see the damage immediately, however over time the damage is obvious and irreversible.
When it comes to sugary drinks, the main culprits are the associated sugar and acid which are found in them. Acting like kryptonite to the enamel of our teeth, acid weakens the enamel by dissolving and softening it. This is remarkable given enamel acts like an armour and is the hardest biological substance known to man – harder even than bone!
Sugar is an issue because it acts as food for bacteria, providing the energy required to form plaque in the mouth. Plaque then eats into teeth to create cavities. Interestingly, the way bacteria enter and infect the teeth is by making acids which dissolve and soften teeth.
Combined, acid and sugar are a formidable team, working like a double shot of kryptonite on teeth.
If we consider the composition of a typical sugary drink, like a soft drink, energy drink, sports drink or fruit juice, we gain a clear picture of how powerful this combination is.
We see this situation in our Benowa dental practice every day. It is particularly bad in situations where there is easy access to high sugar content drinks like the increasingly popular energy drinks and limited understanding of their impact. Take the example of another patient with sponsorship from an energy drink company is paying the price with his teeth. His teeth are affected because he has an endless supply of these drinks, which he consumes all the time.
Are sugary drinks really acidic?
The short answer here is: yes. But not all acids are created equal. Some are stronger than others and will cause more damage.
Acidity is measured by the pH scale, where 1 is a very strong acid and 7 is no longer acidic (what we call neutral). Those acids which have a lower pH (closer to 0) cause more damage. What we know is that anything with an acidity level below a pH of 5.5 will soften and dissolve enamel. Ideally, we don’t want to consume things that are acidic, but realistically most of us regularly do.
Check out the pH scale in the graphic and you’ll very quickly see where sugary drinks rank in the acidity scale. At 3.8 (fruit juice), 3.6 (diet black cola drink), and 3.1 (energy drink), it’s easy to understand how these sugary drinks aren’t helping us.
Another thing people forget is the food additives in many drinks are also very acidic and contribute to the overall impact. Look out for anything in the range of 330 to 338, including
300 (Ascorbic Acid), 330 (Citric Acid) and 338 (Phosphoric Acid).
If you’ve never thought twice about reaching into the drinks fridge for a 600ml bottle of Coke or an sports drink (think of the patients I’ve mentioned), now could be the time to start. The bottom line is black cola drinks, such as Coke, Pepsi, and their diet or sugar free alternatives are among the worst possible drinks for the health of our teeth. These drinks are topped out by alcohol and energy drinks. Mixed with your favourite alcoholic spirit and a little chewing on ice and you’ve a powerful combination of factors that can cause permanent damage to teeth.
What’s the solution to the sugary drink situation?
When I suggest to patients they need to be active in the solution, the first question they generally ask is What if I like my sugary drinks and don’t want to give them up?
Short of abstaining from drinking any sugary beverages like soft drinks, energy drinks and fruit juice, the key to reducing the impact on teeth is quite simple:
- Reduce the quantity you consume
- Reduce how often you consume them
Adopting these two simple measures will help create an environment in your mouth that allows increased production of saliva, which is highly important for remineralising and hardening teeth affected by diet and bacteria. In a very practical way, saliva plays a preventive role in our oral health. It prevents tooth decay and wear on teeth, which can be affected more quickly if they’re not lubricated with, and protected by, saliva.
By reducing the quantity and frequency with which you consume sugary drinks, saliva has time to counter the effects of acid on teeth. Without enough time to heal and repair (saliva needs many hours to return things back to a healthy state), permanent damage can occur. A good rule of thumb to keep in mind is the more time between consuming acidic things, the more time saliva has to work.
Tips for managing sugary drink consumption
If you find it too difficult to give up your sugary drinks, there are ways to manage your consumption to limit the impact they have on teeth.
If you take nothing else away from this blog, be aware that the more frequently these drinks are consumed the less time there is for repair before permanent damage occurs. This not only applies to how many times or cans a day you consume. If you only consume one can of soft drink per day and drink it in one go (or at a meal time for example) this is much better than having only one can of soft drink per day, but sipping it constantly and making it last a long time. Each time you sip the drink, you are creating an acid challenge which the saliva has to overcome again. Try to drink soft drinks only at meal times and avoid them in between meals.
Here are some other tips for managing sugary drink consumption:
- Rinse with water after sipping any of these drinks. If you do this before you swallow the water, it will help wash the acid away. It can also act as an artificial saliva. The bonus? It stimulates saliva (which is better than water) production too. Please remember to NEVER rinse or swish your mouth with fruit juice, energy, sports, or soft drinks as this will make it much worse.
- Use a straw to limit the exposure to the teeth.
- Suck or chew on sugar-free sweets or gum – Certain sweets and gum (that are sugar-free) can be used to stimulate saliva production. Ask your dentist what they’d recommend, but work on the principle that anything you suck or chew, will generate saliva. Just steer clear of sugar content options.
- Teeth should not be brushed for at least one hour after consuming an acidic beverage (because the acid has made them soft). You may brush the tongue as it may retain a low pH for some time
- Make sure you use a soft toothbrush and do not scrub.
- Some whitening toothpastes may be particularly abrasive on teeth so avoid these (especially if they feel gritty, particularly the activated charcoal products).
- Knowing how important saliva is in helping overcome the acid challenge and playing a role in protecting the teeth in the first place, avoid sports drinks following exercise. You will be dehydrated from the exercise, have less saliva to protect the teeth, leaving the drinks to cause greater damage. Because you have less saliva for a while until you rehydrate, the healing potential is much less, leading to more permanent damage.
You could also switch to just drinking water, a tip I recommended to one patient – a farmer who’d been consuming large quantities of fruit juice while working outdoors. This gentleman was dehydrated, a fact noticeable due to the reduced saliva production he was experiencing and the resultant impact on his teeth, which were suffering wear and tear.
Quite simply, sticking with water as your drink of choice most of the time really is a wise choice. By doing this, and reducing the quantity and frequency with which you consume sugary drinks, you’re stepping onto a pathway to better oral and overall health.
Define Dental is located at Benowa, on the Gold Coast. Together with his team of dentists, Dr Les Jabbour provides patients with the information and understanding they need to make lasting change in their oral health care, including reducing the consumption of sugary drinks and high sugar content beverages. If you are concerned about sugary drinks and how these could be impacting your oral and overall health, now is the ideal time to book an appointment with your local Benowa dentist. Ready to book an appointment? Call 5597 2100 now and speak with one of our friendly team and we’ll help you on the pathway to better health.