We tend to associate sugary, fizzy drinks with tooth decay, but sometimes, seemingly “heathy” options including fruit teas and smoothies can lead to problems, too.
According to Claire Stevens, an NHS dentist and President of the British Society of Paediatric Dentistry, teeth face two threats as a result of what we drink: decay and erosion.
“Every time we consume drinks containing sugar, the bacteria which live in our mouths can use the sugar to produce acid, which dissolves the tooth and results in dental decay,” she tells HuffPost UK.
Dental decay begins in a localised spot and may cause a hole in the tooth which needs filling. In contrast, erosion can occur across the whole tooth surface.
“Dental erosion is the permanent loss of tooth tissue due to acid wear. The main source of acid is from things we eat and drink. When tooth wear becomes extreme, the teeth will reduce in size and may become uncomfortable requiring extensive dental treatment,” Stevens explains.
With this in mind, we asked Stevens what some of our favourite drinks are doing to our teeth – plus how we can minimise their damage if we really can’t resist them.
1. Fruit Juice And Smoothies
Fruit juice and smoothies are often marketed as healthy options because they can contribute towards your five-a-day, but according to Stevens, we should be cautious about our consumption drinks as they contain both sugar and acid.
“The combination means that tooth enamel is softened and if this happens frequently, through regular sipping throughout the day, it will erode the enamel,” she says. “Over time, teeth will reduce in size and become more susceptible to decay. My recommendation is to drink these only with a meal and in moderation. A straw helps too as the liquid bypasses the teeth.”
2. Fizzy Drinks
In 2013 almost a third (31%) of five-year-olds and almost half (46%) of eight-year-olds had tooth decay and this has frequently been linked to the consumption of fizzy drinks. It’s recommended that children aged four to six have no more than 19g of sugar per day, but some fizzy drinks, such as a standard can of cola, contain more than this.
“Fizzy drinks have no place in the diet of young children,” says Stevens. “For older children or adults, drink as an occasional treat, with a meal and in one go [rather than sipping throughout the day]. Drinking cold and through straw will minimise erosive damage.”
3. Tea And Coffee
If consumed without sugar, tea and coffee are unlikely to cause decay and are not erosive, says Stevens, but that doesn’t mean they’re not problematic.
“Tea and coffee can cause staining if consumed frequently. Fruit teas are often billed as a healthy option but should be consumed with care as these can be acidic and can cause dental erosion, too,” she says.
4. Sparkling Water
Sparkling water does not contain the sugar associated with other fizzy drinks, such as cola, so is often perceived as healthy as it is unlikely to cause decay.
However, any fizzy drink gets its sparkle from carbonic acid, which is erosive. Because of this, Stevens says sparkling water should only be consumed occasionally and at mealtimes.
Unfortunately, both white and red wine have the potential to damage teeth. While red wine is worse for staining, white wine is more erosive, says Stevens. “Worse still is Prosecco, which is erosive due to the bubbles and white wine combination,” she adds. “Once again, try and keep to mealtimes.”
How can we protect our teeth?
In order to minimise the risk of damage to teeth, Stevens says it is important to reduce the number of times we consume sugary foods and drinks per day and avoid grazing, as this does not give the mouth time to recover between sugar hits. It is better to drink a can of coke in one sitting, rather than sipping it throughout the day. She also recommends brushing twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste and drinking through a straw where possible to limit a liquid’s contact with teeth - but make sure it isn’t a plastic straw, see our non-plastic straw alternatives.
“For young kids, whose first teeth have thinner enamel, only milk and water are safe drinks between meals,” she says.