Sugar is the greatest nemesis of the dental profession and anyone who wants to maintain a healthy smile.
Why? Because the harmful bacteria in our mouths love to eat it, then excrete acid onto our teeth as a waste product. That leads to enamel erosion, tooth decay, and gum disease. This is why we encourage our patients to cut back on sugar intake…but it’s not always as simple as it sounds.
When you think of sugar, you probably picture candy, soda, and desserts above all, but are you also picturing fruit juice, flavored yogurt, granola bars, and barbecue sauce? So many of the foods we eat contain significant amounts of added sugar, and it isn’t always called sugar in the list of ingredients. It’s always a good idea to check the “added sugars” line in the nutritional facts, but we recommend learning to recognize the different names for sugar as well.
Obviously, anything that includes the word “sugar” is something to watch for, whether that sugar is powdered or coarse, brown or coconut, but another giveaway is the word “syrup.” Every syrup, from high-fructose corn syrup to rice syrup, is a type of sugar-based sweetener. That’s not all; evaporated cane juice, agave nectar, honey, fruit juice concentrate, and even 100% fruit juice are also sugar.
Then there are the more scientific names. Don’t be fooled by the long, difficult-to-pronounce chemistry words. An easy way to identify these sugar aliases is to look for the suffix “-ose” at the end of the words, such as in fructose, dextrose, glucose, sucrose, lactose, and maltose. These are all names for types of sugar molecules.
Ideally, we’d all be able to avoid sugar entirely, but with it hiding in so many of the foods we buy, that can be a very difficult goal to achieve. If it isn’t possible to cut sugar out altogether, then we recommend following the American Heart Association’s guidelines. Women should try to consume no more than 25 grams (or six teaspoons) of sugar per day, and men should try to keep it under 36 grams (nine teaspoons).
It’s also important to control when and how we consume our sugar. Whole fruit is a healthier option than fruit juice because the sugar in the fruit is trapped with water and fiber, making it harder for our bodies to absorb it. Whole fruit is also more filling than juice, so we’re less likely to overdo it. (If you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between natural and processed sugars, that’s it.) Finally, it’s better for our teeth to consume our sugar only during meals.
If you simply can’t go without some delicious sweet treats, there are plenty of sugar-free sweeteners to try, such as monk fruit sweetener, stevia, xylitol, and erythritol. Working with these substitutes can be tricky when baking, but many recipes work well with applesauce, mashed bananas, dates, or figs in place of sugar.
Limiting sugar intake and finding healthier substitutes are great ways to promote oral health, in addition to a good daily brushing and flossing routine, but the dentist can help too! If it’s been longer than six months since your last dental appointment, make sure to schedule one!
We have the sweetest patients!