“Sugar Free”: It’s Not Always Safe for Your Teeth

Hi everyone, good news! I wrote and submitted an essay on “More Than Teeth: What Your Dental Team Wants You To Know About Health Misinformation” to the ADA's annual essay contest. My school selected my essay as its winner and it moved on to the national competition! If you are interested, you can have a read below. :-)

Imagine you are waiting in the check-out line at the grocery store. You glance at all of the convenient sweets tempting you. A package of gum and a diet soda catch your eye. They are both branded as “sugar free.” Didn’t I learn at the dentist that “sugar free” is safe for my teeth? You reach for them to read the ingredient lists on the back and are surprised to see many “acids” in the list. Is it really safe for your teeth?

At the store, we see gum, candy, and drinks labelled “sugar free” and may think they are safe (or even good) for our teeth. However, many of these treats contain other things which may be harmful to our teeth despite their “tooth-friendly” claims.1 Even most beverages including “diet” and “sugar free” drinks available to the average American are very acidic.2 Food acids are added to treats and drinks to make them taste fruity or sour, to balance out sweetness, and to keep their freshness longer.3 The problem with acidic ingredients is they have been linked to the breakdown of teeth.4

Cavity-causing bacteria love to eat the sugar we consume in our daily diets.5 They also enjoy living in acidic places.5 Consuming “sugar free,” acid-containing treats make your mouth ideal for the cavity-causing bacteria to thrive and keep breaking down our teeth.5

Food acids can also break down the building blocks of our teeth without the help of bacteria.6 One of the building blocks, called “calcium,” is important for making our teeth strong.6 Citric acid can take the calcium out of our teeth, making them soft and easier for bacteria to damage.7 Citric acid is a common ingredient in fruit juices, fruit- flavored gums, candies, flavored water, and water-enhancers.

If you want to reduce the acid that comes into contact with your teeth, be wary of gums, candy, diet beverages and flavored waters which are advertised as “sugar free.” Check a product’s label for words like “citric acid,” “malic acid,” “food acid,” and different fruit “concentrates” to find out if it contains acids harmful to your teeth.

If you do enjoy some of these treats, try to consume them in one sitting instead of throughout the day. Drink with a straw. Afterwards, rinse your mouth with some water to help wash away the acid. If you want to brush your teeth, wait at least 20-30 minutes to keep from scratching them while the acid is still there and they are weaker.

Some people seek out different gums or candy to help with mouth dryness. In cases of mouth dryness, food acids can have an even more negative impact on your teeth because there is not enough saliva to wash away the acid.8 Mint-flavored, sugar free options are generally safer which can increase the amount of saliva your mouth makes without the extra food acid.

If you are reducing your sugar-intake for other health reasons, sugar free alternatives might still be a better option for you in moderation. Talk with your doctor and dentist to find good options to keep your body and teeth happy.

Now you know “sugar free” does not always mean “safe for your teeth.”