Refined sugar is a prime food source for disease-causing oral bacteria. As bacteria consume sugar they produce high levels of acid that over time can erode enamel and leave a tooth vulnerable for decay.
The solution to stopping this vicious process is simple: cut back on eating refined sugar. The reality, though, is a bit more complicated. Many of us seem genetically hard-wired with a “sweet tooth,” perhaps a remnant of our early ancestors' sense that sweet foods were a safe means to obtain energy.
Food manufacturers likewise don't help with making this dietary change — the number of items with added sugar has ballooned over the last several decades. We can trace a lot of this back to the unintended consequences of past government guidelines that called for removing fat from processed foods. But this also removed flavor, so manufacturers began adding sugar (under a myriad of names) to compensate.
Sugar consumption is now a hot health topic for its suspected connection with inflammatory diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as dental health. We now have a love-hate relationship with sugar — we want to show it the door but we can't quite bring ourselves to let it go.
The situation has created a market for artificial sweeteners. The amount and types of sugar alternatives has exploded since saccharine first emerged in the early 1960s. With these increased choices, though, there have also been increased concerns over their health impact, including in the mouth.
This concern has prompted numerous research studies. The conclusion: artificial sweeteners don't adversely affect the health of most people. And, from a dental perspective, artificial sweeteners can have a positive impact on teeth and gum health because unlike refined sugar they don't promote oral bacterial growth.
In fact, one particular sweetener may be even more beneficial to your teeth: xylitol. This sweetener, which comes from a sugar alcohol that oral bacteria can't digest, is often found in chewing gums, hard candies or mints. In effect, xylitol “starves out” bacteria to help prevent tooth decay.
From a dental perspective, replacing sugar with an artificial sweetener (especially xylitol) can be advantageous. And less sugar could mean more good news after your next dental checkup.
If you would like more information on artificial sweeteners, please contact us or schedule an appointment for a consultation. You can also learn more about this topic by reading the Dear Doctor magazine article “Artificial Sweeteners.”