Don't eat that!
Fact: Nobody looks forward to her biannual rendezvous at the dentist’s. But the discomfort from the poking and scraping of routine cleanings is nothing compared to the pain (not to mention the expense) of more intensive procedures, like fillings and root canals. So wouldn't it be nice to seriously lower your chances of needing dental work with some strategic eating?
“There are plenty of foods that people should be avoiding if they want to keep their teeth in good shape,” says Guillaume Lepine, DDS, a Massachusetts-based dentist. We polled some of the top oral hygiene experts in the country to find out what’s not in their kitchen—and how they prevent food-related tooth damage whenever naughty nibbles do manage to make it past their lips.
Soda (even diet)
Your favorite sugary soda is a total smile saboteur. “Most contain an acid that can weaken tooth enamel—even diet soda,” explains John F. Buzzatto, DMD, MDS, president of the American Association of Orthodontists. If you must indulge, drink through a straw to limit soda’s contact with your teeth.
Already struggling with weak teeth? Skip crunchy fruits and veggies, which can further crack or damage fragile chompers. Apples and carrots are actually two of the biggest culprits of cracked teeth, Dr. Buzzatto notes. But don’t skip these healthy treats altogether: “Cut them into bite-size pieces before you enjoy them,” he recommends.
Savoring a sweet sucker might seem innocent enough, but not so fast. “Sucking these candies exposes your mouth to harsh sugars for longer periods of time,” Dr. Lepine says. “And chewing on them can break or crack teeth, fillings, and sealants.”
Sure, ice is sugar-free—but if you tend to chew on the cubes once you’ve finished a beverage, they can cause major damage. Dental experts say nibbling on ice is a major no-no as it can easily crack or break teeth.
Corn on the cob
Sadly, this summertime favorite is off-limits if you want your teeth to stay in one piece. Biting into corn that's on the cob can loosen or crack fillings and sealants, and damage orthodontic wires and brackets among patients with braces, Dr. Buzzatto says. And when it comes to dentures, chomping down on corn on the cob can easily dislodge the dentures. Instead of skipping corn altogether, though, simply scrape it off the cob before consuming.
Tooth enamel is particularly vulnerable to dark colors, including red pasta sauce—porous enamel can easily absorb this coloring, leading to unsightly stains. Plus, the acidity from tomatoes makes teeth temporarily more porous. But instead of laying off the sauce, solve the problem by swishing with plenty of water while you’re enjoying an Italian repast.
Sorry chardonnay fans. While the deep color of red wine can cause discoloration, white wine might actually trigger even more damage. "The acidity in wine makes teeth more susceptible to stains, and white wine is generally more acidic," says Irwin Smigel, DDS, president of the American Society for Dental Aesthetics. "This acid can leave teeth vulnerable to stains from darkly colored food."
Convinced bottled water is better than tap? Not where your teeth are concerned. “The problem is during the purification process, water become more acidic," explains Brett Silverman, DDS, a Georgia-based dentist. "Acid and teeth equals cavities."
Your teeth might feel cleaner after you pop a mint, but the real story: “Sucking on breath mints all day is like soaking your teeth in sugar,” warns Bill Dorfman, DDS, author of Billion Dollar Smile. Go sugar-free, and opt for mints sweetened with xylitol, which appears to combat bacteria associated with tooth decay.
That dentists avoid taffy and caramels like the plague isn’t exactly surprising. “Sticky candies get stuck between braces and teeth, allowing plaque to build up,” Dr. Lepine says. Plus, a chewy candy in the wrong place at the wrong time can easily take a tooth out. But here’s the good news: If you need a sugar hit, dark chocolate is soft on teeth and may combat plaque, according to recent research.
Noshing a pb&j is reminiscent of childhood, but it’s a surefire way to prematurely age your teeth. The high sugar content of all three ingredients means that as soon as you bite in, enamel-eroding bacteria go on a feeding frenzy. And because peanut butter and jelly are both sticky, they allow the bacteria to adhere to your teeth.
They taste light as air, but the texture of potato chips (crunchy at first, then gummy post-chewing) means they tend to linger in your mouth. When chip particles get stuck between teeth, acid-producing bacteria indulge in a snacking attack that ups your risk of tooth decay. And since we tend to nosh on chips over a long period (hey, no one can eat just one), that means a non-stop period of acid production.
So much for a refreshing glass of lemonade on the beach—the citric acid in lemons can wreak havoc on teeth. “Lemonade is a destructive combination of acid and sugar that leads to tooth decay and cavities,” Dr. Lepine says. “Even adding lemon slices to water can be a danger, because of the acidity it adds.”
Your favorite cinema snack is a double-pronged danger: Much like potato chips, popcorn can wedge between teeth and foster bacterial growth. Un-popped kernels are even worse. “When it gets to the bottom of the bag, people don’t realize that biting on kernels can break your teeth,” Dr. Dorfman says.
Items like raisins, figs, and dried apricots are bursting with nutrition. Unfortunately, they’re also packed with a dense dose of sugar and non-soluble cellulose fiber, which can bind and trap those sugars around the tooth to the same extent as saltwater taffy. Your best bet? Sticking with the fresh version as much as possible.
Here’s another good reason to avoid refined carbohydrates, like white sandwich bread: The simple sugars quickly dissolve inside the mouth, causing a surge of acid that can erode tooth enamel. Plus, white bread takes on a gummy consistency when chewed, meaning small particles can get trapped between teeth.
A nutritious pick-me-up after your morning workout? Not quite. Sports drinks are packed with sugar and acids, Dr. Silverman says. And because we tend to swish sports drinks around in our mouths, the potential for cavities and erosion is even more significant.
They might soothe your symptoms, but many cough drops have as much sugar as hard candy, experts warn. And because you suck on them for several minutes, and tend to pop them all day long when you have a cold, dental damage can be hefty. Skip the drops in favor of soothing your throat with herbal tea and water, or opt for sugar-free drops if necessary.
From grapefruits to oranges, citrus boasts a bevy of nutrients. But they’re also packed with acids that can strip your teeth, says Dr. Lepine. Drink water when you enjoy a citrus snack, and swap in essential oils—which have less acidity—instead of the real thing when you flavor your water, he suggests.
Vinegar is in a variety of foods, including salad dressings, pickles, and other sauces. But this flavorful ingredient can also trigger tooth decay: In one recent study, teens who ate vinegar-heavy foods had a 30 to 85% increased risk of enamel erosion. Lettuce actually appears to combat the damaging effects of vinegar—so keep enjoying your favorite balsamic vinaigrette on your salad without worry.
You know that a sugar-filled margarita isn’t doing your waistline any favors, but what about your teeth? Much like fruit juice, sugar-heavy cocktails can lead to cavities. Plus, alcohol actually dries out the mouth—eliminating any protective benefit from saliva. If you’re going to indulge, opt for sugar-free mixers like soda water.
It’s a better option than coffee, which is notorious for its potential to stain teeth. But the tannins in tea can cause stains—and one recent study found that darker teas (Earl Gray, English Breakfast) are significantly more likely to do damage. Opt for green or herbal varieties instead.
Nature’s candy is already sweet enough—but food manufacturers often stuff canned fruit with a ton of extra sugar. Citrus fruits packed in heavy syrup are the worst culprits, because they combine acids with a ton of cavity-causing sugar. Pick canned fruit in its own juices, or go with frozen varieties instead.
While everyone loves a piece of toast in the morning, biting into hardened toast can lead to broken teeth, Dr. Dorfman warns. Stick with lightly toasted bread, and avoid hard crusts to protect your smile.