Brief reminder: The bacteria in your mouth consume sugar and produce acid as a waste product. This acid makes holes in your teeth and that allows more bacteria to invade. More acid is produced, making the hole larger and larger. This is how cavities (decay) form.
The soft drinks and sports drinks we consume are acidic and contain significant amounts of sugar. The bacteria in your mouth are surrounded by the perfect environment and food source when you drink sweetened liquids. When we were in dental school (yes, over 22 years ago) we were informed that cavities were on the decline. Unfortunately, this has not been shown to be the case and cavities in portions of the population have been on the increase. It may not be the only cause of the increase, but Americans have greatly increased the amount of sugars we drink. Remember a time when gas stations only sold 8- and 12-ounce bottles? Not only are we drinking more bottles per year per person, those bottles are now 16 to 20 ounces or more.
You have heard of high-fructose corn syrup (FHCS). It was only invented on a large scale for industrial food preparation in 1980. By 1985 almost all soft drinks in the United States were sweetened with FHCS. Fructose is just another form of sugar, with the same calories and effects. Food labels are required to show the caloric and ingredient information, but we tend to lose sight of just how much sugar we are consuming. To make matter worse some drinks may seem better than others, but they are just as bad. An example would be sweetened tea with lemon flavor. The added citric acid and sugar can be on higher levels than Coke.
If you were given 10-12 teaspoons of sugar to eat with a glass of water, you would immediately question the rationale behind the suggestion. But when you drink one Coke, that is exactly what you are consuming. Processed corn sweeteners are so common and cheap to produce they even replace the natural sugars in our fruit juices. Many of the processed fruit drinks on the market are sweetened with HFCS and are made from concentrate instead of the naturally sweet sugar from the whole fruit. With marketing this can be confusing as corn is a plant and natural, so it can be labeled naturally sweet.
The sports drinks that are marketed to our young athletes are full of sugars. The larger sized Gatorade for example has almost as much sugar as a can of Coke. In fact, many of the processed foods that we rely on for their convenience and long shelf lives have added sugars. Examples include yogurts, breads, cereals and packaged snacks. The average American is consuming over 200 additional calories per day in the form of HFCS than they were a decade ago. These added sugars have been a driving factor in the rise of obesity, diabetes and other health ailments.
It can be frustrating (and all too common) to see a teenage patient diagnosed with multiple cavities on permanent teeth. With such easy access to sugary drinks our younger patients need to have even better oral hygiene habits. As with all decay, these cavities form and become large before being painful (symptomatic).
At Martin Dentistry we recommend regular cleanings, exams and fluoride treatments in addition to a predictable home care. We use digital x-rays (radiographs) to detect and treat these cavities as conservatively as possible. During our exams we take notes on diet and behaviors that may lead to decay risks. We look to be a conservative as possible and diagnose cavities before they become large and symptomatic. We will also offer advice on alternative beverages and foods that do not lead to added calories or cavities. Water and unsweetened iced tea are great alternative to sugary liquids. Many drinks are now solely flavored with non-caloric natural essences. Stevia is a natural sweetener that does not add the calories and does not lead to decay. Life is short, if you do want to enjoy a soft drink, please brush after!
Matthew Martin, DDS