Does sugar cause cavities?
All fermentable carbohydrates, including sugars and starches, contribute to the development of dental caries (also called tooth decay). Examples of cariogenic foods and beverages include:
- Sugary and starchy foods such as bread, rice, noodles, crackers, cakes, sweetened cereals, and hard and chewy candies;
- Sticky foods such as dried fruits, fruit snacks, cookies, and chewy candies (toffee);
- Beverages such as sweetened soda, fruit drinks, fruit juice and other sweetened beverages (including sugar-free sodas, which contains acid that erodes tooth enamel).
It is not just the total amount of sugars and starches eaten that contributes to tooth decay but also the frequency of carbohydrate consumption, how long the food is in the mouth, and if it sticks to the teeth (1, 2). The longer teeth are in contact with carbohydrates in these foods, the greater the risk of tooth decay. However, proper oral hygiene and the use of fluoride (e.g. fluoridated tooth paste, fluoride treatment at the dentist) can reduce the likelihood of tooth decay.
What is the best way to prevent cavities?
Although a combination of proper oral hygiene (regular brushing and flossing of teeth) and fluoride use are the primary tools for preventing tooth decay, dietary changes may help.
Sugars and starches eaten continuously throughout the day can have more harmful effects on teeth than when they are part of meals. Thus, spacing meals at least two hours apart and eating high-protein foods in combination with carbohydrates may protect against dental caries. Also, the chewing action in combination with raw or cooked foods in the mouth can increase saliva production, which minimizes the effect of carbohydrates on teeth.
Carbohydrate-containing foods that are sticky can adhere to/in between teeth are potentially more cavity-causing because they are difficult to be brushed away and may remain in the mouth for longer periods of time. Examples of these “sticky” foods include caramels, dried fruits, bread, potato chips and crackers. Therefore, controlling the frequency of consumption of carbohydrate foods that adhere to teeth can help to prevent the formation of cavities.
- Ruxton CHS, Gardner Ej, McNulty HM. Is sugar consumption detrimental to health? A review of the evidence 1995-2006. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2010 Jan;50(1):1-19
- Touger-Decker R, van Loveren C. Sugars and dental caries. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78(suppl): 881S-892S, 2003.