Snack Smart for Healthy Teeth

Sugary snacks taste so good – but they aren't so good for your teeth or your body. The candies, cakes, cookies and other sugary foods that we love to eat between meals can cause tooth decay. Some sugary foods have a lot of fat in them, too.

Sugary snacks include many different kinds of sugar, including table sugar (sucrose) and corn sweeteners (fructose). Starchy snacks can also break down into sugars once they're in your mouth.

Did you know that the average American eats about 147 pounds of sugars a year? It's not surprising that the average 17-year-old in this country has more than three decayed teeth!

Candy bars aren't the only culprits. Foods such as pizza, breads and hamburger buns may also contain sugars. Check the labels. The new food labels identify sugars and fats on the Nutrition Facts panel of packages. Keep in mind that brown sugar, honey, molasses and syrups also react with bacteria to produce acids, just as refined table sugar does. These foods also are potentially damaging to teeth.

How do sugars attack your teeth?
Bacteria live in your mouth all the time. Some of that bacteria form a sticky material called plaque on the surface of the teeth. When you eat sugar, the bacteria in the plaque turn the sugar into acids that can dissolve the hard enamel that covers your teeth. That's how cavities get started. If you don't eat much sugar, the bacteria can't produce as much of the acid that eats away enamel.

How can I "snack smart" to protect myself from tooth decay?
Before you start munching on a snack, ask yourself what's in the food you've chosen. Is it loaded with sugar? If it is, think again. Another choice would be better for your teeth. And keep in mind that certain kinds of sweets can do more damage than others. Gooey or chewy sweets spend more time sticking to the surface of your teeth. Because sticky snacks stay in your mouth longer than foods that you quickly chew and swallow, they give your teeth a longer sugar bath.

You should also think about when and how often you eat snacks. Do you nibble on sugary snacks many times throughout the day or do you usually just have dessert after dinner? Damaging acids form in your mouth every time you eat a sugary snack. The acids continue to affect your teeth for at least 20 minutes before they are neutralized and can't do any more harm. So, the more times you eat sugary snacks during the day, the more often you feed bacteria the fuel they need to cause tooth decay.

If you eat sweets, it's best to eat them as dessert after a main meal instead of several times a day between meals. Whenever you eat sweets – in any meal or snack – brush your teeth well with a fluoride toothpaste afterward.

When you're deciding about snacks, think about:

  • the number of times a day you eat sugary snacks
  • how long the sugary food stays in your mouth
  • the texture of the sugary food (chewy? sticky?)

If you snack after work, before bedtime or other times during the day, choose something without a lot of sugar or fat. There are lots of tasty, filling snacks that are less harmful to your teeth – and the rest of your body – than foods loaded with sugars and low in nutritional value. Snack smart!

Low-fat choices like raw vegetables, fresh fruits or whole-grain crackers or bread are smart choices. Eating the right foods can help protect you from tooth decay and other diseases. Next time you reach for a snack, pick a food from the list below or make up your own menu of non-sugary, low-fat snack foods from the basic food groups.

Pick a variety of foods from these groups:

  • Fresh fruits and raw vegetables: berries, oranges, grapefruit, melons, pineapple, pears, tangerines, broccoli, celery, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, unsweetened fruit and vegetable juices, canned fruits in natural juices
  • Grains: bread, plain bagels, unsweetened cereals, unbuttered popcorn, tortilla chips (baked, not fried), pretzels (low-salt), pasta, plain crackers
  • Milk and dairy products: low- or non-fat milk, low- or non-fat yogurt, low- or non-fat cheeses, low- or non-fat cottage cheese
  • Meat, nuts and seeds: chicken, turkey, sliced meats, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, nuts
  • Others (these snacks combine foods from the different groups): pizza, tacos

Remember to:

  • choose sugary foods less often
  • avoid sweets between meals
  • eat a variety of low- or non-fat foods from the basic groups
  • brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste after snacks and meals

Source: Adapted from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, National Institutes of Health website