Snacking and Your Teeth

Are some snacks better for my teeth than others?

Yes. The best snacks for a healthy mouth are low in starches and sugar. That's because sugars and starches mingle with bacteria in your mouth to create an acidic environment. Over time, the acid eats away at the teeth, leading to tooth decay and cavities.

Some foods, such as soft drinks, are also acidic, something many baby boomers learned in science class by dropping a tooth in a jar full of soda and watching it dissolve over the next week or so. In addition to being acidic, some brands with sugar contain as much as 11 teaspoons of sugar per serving, according to the American Dental Association. If you want to reduce your sugar intake, you are better off switching to the diet versions, which typically contain less sugar. But even most diet drinks contain phosphoric acid and citric acid, which can also erode your teeth over time.

What snacks are good for my teeth?

Raw vegetables are a good choice. Cut up some carrot sticks, or pick up a bag of baby carrots. They're tasty, and the crunch is satisfying as well. Here are some other smart snack choices:

  • Plain yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Raw almonds
  • Grapes
  • Apples
  • Oranges
  • Bananas
  • Walnuts

Cheese is particularly good for your teeth -- although it can contain a lot of fat, so don't overdo it. Besides protecting your teeth against bacteria that cause decay, cheese contains proteins like casein that act as a buffer against decay-promoting acids formed when you eat sugary goods.

What about pretzels and raisins?

Keep in mind that some healthy snack foods may not be as healthy for your teeth. Interestingly, certain snacks -- like crackers and pretzels -- may be even worse for your teeth than caramels or hard candies. Why? Starchy foods are more likely leave bits of food that stick to the teeth and encourage the growth of plaque (a thin bacterial film that contributes to tooth decay). Dried raisins present the same problem: Besides containing fruit sugar, or fructose, dried fruit is sticky and clings to your teeth, creating a favorable environment for bacteria. The good news is that if you brush your teeth or even rinse your mouth after eating crackers, raisins, and other sticky snacks, you can reap the benefits of a nutritious snack and cut the risk of cavities.

Does it matter how often I snack during the day?

It does if what you eat is high in sugar or starch. Every time you snack on a starchy or sugary food, your teeth are bombarded with acid for about 20 minutes after your last swallow, according to the American Dental Association.

How can I minimize the damage from an unhealthy snack?

Everybody needs to sample a lemon tart or indulge in a piece of chocolate every now and then. If you do munch on these foods, it helps to eat the entire serving at one time, rather than make a sugary snack last all afternoon. And try to brush your teeth afterwards, or at least drink a glass of water to help rinse sugar off your teeth. That way you can enjoy treats even more.

References

Diet and Tooth Decay, Journal of the American Dental Association, Volume 133, April 2002, 527.

The list of healthy snacks is culled from the following sources: "Your Diet and Dental Health", American Dental Association, "Eating Right for Your Dental Health," Delta Dental, "Diet and Snacking" American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.

Kashket S et al. Cheese consumption and progression of dental caries. Nutrition Review 2002, April; 60(4); 97-103.

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