Children's Health Nutrition Parenting

Why snacking really can rot your teeth

We’ve all heard it before. As parents, we’ve probably even heard the words come out of our own mouths: “Don’t eat that! You’ll rot your teeth!”

And if you’re the parent of a questioning type, you might find yourself responding with the tried-and-true “Because I said so”—because do any of us really know how snacks can lead to tooth decay?

We asked a dentist, and the answer, it turns out, is simple. “Sugar and acid,” said Dr. Bruce Riggs, a pediatric dentist at the Dental College of Georgia.

Not all snacks are created equal, and those that are high in starches and sugars are the major culprits of tooth decay. “Foods high in sugar and starches actually link with bacteria in the mouth, creating a very acidic environment. Over time, that acid eats into teeth, leading to cavities and tooth decay,” he said.

In fact, the American Dental Association has reported that every time you eat a starchy, sugary snack, your teeth are bombarded with acid for 20 full minutes after the last swallow. “It’s that quick,” said Riggs.

Eat this, not that, for healthier teeth

If you’re packing snacks for a lunchbox or planning for your child’s mid-afternoon hunger pangs, reach for these, said Riggs: raw veggies like celery and baby carrots, plain yogurt, raw almonds, walnuts, grapes, apples, oranges and bananas. “Cheese is also a smart snack since the proteins in cheese act as a buffer against decay,” he said.

Pretzels, crackers, chips and dried fruit like raisins may be snack staples, but should be packed sparingly if your goal is healthier teeth. “Parents always ask me about pretzels and raisins, but the interesting fact is that they are worse for teeth than hard candy,” said Riggs. “Both leave bits of food behind that stick to teeth and encourage the growth of bacteria and plaque.”

Finally, encourage your child to drink water as much as possible. Without even considering the impact of too much sugary soda on childhood obesity, consider this science project: If you drop a tooth into a cup of regular soda, over the course of a week, the tooth slowly dissolves. High-sugar juices and energy drinks can do the same thing. Even diet sodas still contain phosphoric and citric acids, which erode teeth.

Do this too

The best advice that a dentist can give is for everyone to brush their teeth after every meal or snack.

But that’s not always practical. The next best thing? “Brush for two minutes, two times a day, ideally after breakfast and before bed, and floss every night, since plaque forms every 24 hours,” said Riggs.

And if your child is taking cold or cough medication at night, make sure your brushing and flossing take place afterwards, since these products—especially those geared toward kids, with fun flavors—tend to have a high sugar content.

Then, throughout the day after you eat, give your mouth a swish with water. According to Riggs, just rinsing your mouth after snacking or meals helps remove any particles and some of the biofilm on teeth (which is—ick—the community of bacteria that accumulate there).

And while it may seem healthier to graze on an unhealthy snack throughout the day, Riggs says for the teeth, it’s far better to enjoy the indulgence all at once, then rinse or brush. “Frequency is the problem,” he said. “Remember, teeth are bombarded with acid for 20 minutes after your last swallow, so if someone is nibbling on a lemon tart or chocolate cake all afternoon, the teeth are experiencing hours of acid exposure.”

The bottom line for parents, said Riggs, is to start in that lunchbox. “Know what really are good snacks. As dentists, our goal is for snacks like carrots, grapes, yogurt and walnuts to catch on, instead of that Twinkie.”

About the author

Children's Hospital of Georgia

Children's Hospital of Georgia

Children’s Hospital of Georgia is the only facility in the area dedicated exclusively to children. It staffs the largest team of pediatric specialists in the region who deliver out- and in- patient care for everything from common childhood illnesses to life-threatening conditions like heart disorders, cancer and neurological diseases.

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