What exactly does sugar do to your teeth?

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Sugar is bad for your teeth. A basic statement, but how many times do we hear it and simply ignore it? How about the fact that the average person consumes a whopping 42 grams of sugar every day?

Believe it or not, tooth decay is the most common non-communicable disease in the world – affecting 60-90% of school-age children and almost 100% of adults. It may also surprise you to learn that the treatment of dental diseases accounts for up to 10% of the total health spend in industrialised countries, and is the number one reason why children undergo general anaesthetic.

In case you still need convincing in order to ditch the sugary snacks and soda, let’s take a look at exactly what sugar does to our teeth – and why it causes us so many problems.

A sip a day leads to decay

One of the main reasons sugar plays such havoc with our teeth is because it is an extremely fermentable substance – that is to say, it breaks down incredibly easily. The entry point for sugar into our bodies is of course the mouth, and so it is here where the sugars in our food and drink first break down. The bacteria in our mouths reacts with sugar to create acids, and as I’m sure we all know by now that acids spell big trouble for our teeth.

When acid attacks the teeth, it has a demineralising and decalcifying effect, breaking down the tooth’s structural content and paving the way for decay. And these acid attacks take place not only while the sugar is in our mouths, but also after we swallow. That’s because traces of sugar and bacteria continue to live on between the teeth for some time.

What’s more, this is only the beginning of the carnage that sugar inflicts on our teeth each time we eat or drink those sugary treats. Once plaque has formed in the mouth, it uses additional sugar as a form of energy – allowing it to multiply faster, growing in size and thickness on the surface of your teeth. This process works to dissolve the tooth’s enamel, which in time exposes its inner layers, leading to pain, discomfort, cavities, and ultimately, tooth loss.

“Once plaque has formed in the mouth, it uses additional sugar as a form of energy – allowing it to multiply faster, growing in size and thickness on the surface of your teeth.”

Beware of the sugars you can’t see

So far, I’ve attacked the usual suspects – soda, candy, sugary snacks. And of course cutting these out of your diet alltogether is the first thing you should do if you want to preserve that winning smile. However, one of the main reasons for the Western world’s high sugar intake is hidden sugars in foods and drinks that many of us think are actually healthy.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently acknowledged the devastating impact that hidden sugar is having on our health worldwide, linking it not only to tooth decay, but also obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.

To take one example, the majority of parents still think that store-bought juices are packed full of vitamins and so are good for their children’s health. In fact, store-bought juices are about as bad as it gets because of the massive amounts of sugar they contain. The reality is that many contain even more sugar than soft drinks.

As for the non-liquid foods, well, most of what we buy in the supermarket today has added sugars. Everything from cereals to pasta to flavoured yogurts to salad dressings – all are loaded with extra sugars.

So start reading labels as you aim to cut down on your family’s sugar consumption. The best bet in avoiding sugar is to stick to natural foods such as meats, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and eggs. Foods that have as little “human influence” as possible are always the safest.


If you are going to consume any of the high sugar foods (its really are hard to avoid given our diets today), then whenever possible brush your teeth thoroughly afterwards. If you are not always able to brush after meals, drink lots of water or follow up the unhealthy eating with some healthy snacks such as carrots or celery sticks – which can help to remove any sugary residue from the teeth and so reduce harmful acid build-up.

Ultimately, if you want to stay cavity free and enjoy good dental health, your best defence is a mix of healthy diet and good oral hygiene. And keep in mind this starts at a young age. So if you have children, you’ll want to help them understand that daily brushing and flossing must also be accompanied by good diet. Leading by example is what we all need to do.

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