The bacterial disease that causes cavities is called “dental caries”. Caries is what we refer to as a multifactorial disease, meaning there are a lot of factors that contribute to the disease and the reason there isn’t a simple solution for curing it. One of the main factors that we spend a lot of time talking about in our office is diet. When the bacteria that cause cavities are exposed to sugar, they break it down into acid that eventually can weaken enamel and create holes in teeth.
The science of cavities is interesting in that it’s not actually the quantity of sugar that makes a big difference, but the frequency of the sugar exposure. So eating a bowl of M&M’s in one sitting would actually be better for your teeth than grabbing a few every hour throughout the day (although neither scenario is particularly good for your overall health!). The buffers and minerals in saliva help neutralize acid released by bacteria after sugar exposure, but it takes time for the saliva to regenerate its helpful properties. So if you snack frequently, your saliva may struggle to keep up and cannot completely combat all the acid that builds up.
We all know that things like candy and cookies should be avoided to prevent cavities, but we have plenty of patients who don’t eat a lot of candy, rarely drink juice, and still end up with cavities. There seems to be a “hidden” source of sugar somewhere in their diets, and dentists like Dr. Erica are starting to blame snacks such as Goldfish crackers, dry cereal, pretzels, and granola bars. We don’t think of a cracker as the usual culprit for dental decay, but the next time you eat one, pay attention to how it actually can be thought of as a “sticky” food. The mashed up carbohydrate gets stuck in the grooves of your teeth and unless you pick it out with your tongue, finger, or a toothbrush, the food will stay there for quite awhile. Young children don’t have the full motor development of their tongues to pick out the food, and many just don’t seem to be bothered by have food stuck in their teeth. It is not surprising to find Goldfish stuck in the grooves of our little patients’ molars hours after their snack time! If left on the tooth long enough, the Goldfish remnants will eventually be broken down into simple sugars that then feed the bacteria and cause acid production.
Of course we’re not suggesting that children never eat crackers – that is an impossible request that is not practical – but you can make some adjustments to your family’s snacking routine that could make a big difference for teeth. The best thing would be to limit snacking overall or choose non-carbohydrate food for in between meals, such as cheese sticks, yogurt, fruit, or meat. Avoid snacks that are extra sticky such as dried fruit or granola bars made with dates or honey. Offer water with all snacks to help wash away leftover food, or have a crunchy snack like an apple or carrot after a cracker to help clean out the molar grooves. Dr. Erica made the chart below with some general guidelines for snacking. We also printed them as magnets to put on your fridge as a gentle reminder in your kitchen, just ask for one at your next visit! Keep in mind that while some snacks may be safe for teeth, they might not be healthy for your body in excess (like ice cream, for example). Snack smartly, brush twice a day with fluoridated toothpaste, drink plenty of water, visit your dentist every six months, and you’re giving yourself the best possible chance to remain cavity-free!