School’s In! Does That Mean More Sugar (And Cavities)?

Posted on Aug 27, 2018 by William J. Claiborne, DDS MS

With school back in, the conversation surrounding soft drink machines in schools has been a more frequent one of late. While some schools know that easy access to these sugar-laden beverages is not wise, many of the major players in the cola industry are big-time sponsors of high school activities. It’s been a controversial trade-off for years.

While the sugar content of colas is seldom seen as healthy (the acidity is also harmful, likened to battery acid), soft drinks aren’t the only culprit when it comes to too much sugar in our diets (in both adults and adolescents).

Colas have largely been targeted because their sugar content is so high. A 20oz soft drink can contain 17 teaspoons of sugar. When it comes to the mouth, the harm is two-fold.

Sugar triggers a particularly challenging reaction in the mouth. When we consume sugar (whether granule or in the form of high fructose corn syrup), it super-charges oral bacteria. When these micro-organisms in the mouth mix with sugar, it produces acid that leads to a particularly higher risk for cavities.

Are your children getting lots of cavities? Don’t just look at their brushing routines. Look at what they’re eating and drinking.

A common pattern when it comes to soft drinks is to sip the beverage over an extended period of time. In addition to the harmful effects of sugar, here’s why this pace of consumption is so harmful to teeth…

Every time you eat or drink, an oral acid flows into the mouth to help break the contents down. This is the initial prep for digestion.

This acid is potent stuff – strong enough to soften tooth enamel. It lasts for 20-30 minutes after consumption, which means a cola sipped over the course of an hour keeps the acid attack going for an hour and 20 minutes.

If a cola is consumed only with meals, when an acid attack is already underway, the challenges wouldn’t be so severe. However, both kids and adults are prone to ‘pop a top’ and sip these drinks between meals and over long periods of time.

As the acidity of oral acids combines with the acidity of soft drinks, tooth enamel becomes much more vulnerable to the penetration of decay. So, then you add the onslaught of sugar to this, the potential for harm goes much higher.

Although sugary soft drinks can be a source for cause tooth rot and upping the risk for gum disease, they are but one source. I don’t want it to seems as if I’m ‘picking on’ colas, since sugar can have a greater presence in more of what Americans consume than is often realized.

For example, in a 2015 Washington Post article, it was reported that 25 percent of catsup is sugar. (

Interestingly, the article’s author (Casey Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a D.C.-based nutrition education company, and author of “The Super Food Cards”) shares, “A tablespoon-size serving has four grams of sugar, which is more sugar than a typical chocolate chip cookie. And how many kids actually limit their serving size to one tablespoon?”

I agree. When I dip french fries into catsup, I often sop up a tablespoon with 3 fries.

Other hidden sources of sugar lie in salad dressings, fruit juices, sports and energy drinks, many breakfast cereals, and things like canned baked beans. I was shocked to see that my favorite brand of lemon pepper even contains sugar!

While we all need to get into the habit of reading labels before we buy, my role as a periodontist is primarily to help you understand what occurs in your mouth from these sugary edibles. And, I believe once you’re more aware of the risks (and the resulting potential for costly repairs to teeth and gums), you should also know how to lessen the potential for cavities and gum disease.

Let’s start with a simple way to lower the severity of an acid attack in the mouth. If you’ve just consumed a food or beverage that contains sugar or has a high acid level, sneak off to the bathroom to swish with water several times. Easy!

If you’re sipping a can of cola and intend to drink it over an extended period, have a glass or bottle of plain water nearby and take a few large gulps every 20 or 30 minutes. Allow each gulp to wash over the teeth and gums before swallowing. This will help to dilute the existing acids and move some of the bacteria out of the mouth.

Also, delay brushing your teeth until the acid has waned. It is best to wait to brush for 30 minutes after eating or drinking since tooth enamel remains in a softened state for about this long. The abrasiveness of a toothpaste or toothbrush bristles can wear down precious tooth enamel while it is in a less-protective mode when used too soon after consumption.

Make sure your at-home care is thorough. Brush twice a day for at least 2 minutes per time. Use a soft to medium bristle toothbrush and fluoridated toothpaste. Floss daily to remove food particles caught between teeth. Brush your tongue or use a tongue scrapper. And, swish several times to send the dislodged and swept away bacteria down the drain!

Also, be aware of the signs and symptoms of gum disease. Sore, tender, bleeding, swollen or red gums are all warning signs. With prompt measures, we can greatly minimize treatment needs to rid your mouth of this dangerous bacteria that has been associated with a number of serious health problems (including stroke and some cancers).

Have regular dental check-ups and cleanings also. If you haven’t been regular at your general dentist, call 828-274-9440 our Asheville periodontal office and schedule an appointment. We can help to restore your mouth to a healthy state with the most conservative, yet effective, treatment possible.

Remember, gum disease only worsens without treatment. It is also the nation’s leading cause of adult tooth loss.

Watch what you eat and how often you eat it and your smile will thank you!

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