We all know sugar causes tooth decay. It's our aversion to the idea of the dentist drilling at our teeth to treat tooth decay that helps many of us resist lollies, soft drinks and other sweet treats. With this in mind, many of us reach for a glass of juice rather than a can of soft drink. But is this really any better for your teeth? Not always, says Professor Laurence Walsh, as it's not just the sugar in drinks that's the problem. Many of our favourite drinks, especially juices and soft drinks, contain acids that can dissolve the hard structures of your teeth (the enamel and any exposed roots), leaving the inner parts of teeth exposed, which leads to sensitivity. "That's why if people drink either large amounts of orange juice or are regular users of soft drink, they start to notice that their teeth get sensitive as the acids dissolve the outside structure of the teeth," Walsh says. This dental erosion is common and research has found it affects up to 43 per cent of adults and up to 80 per cent of children. While dark cola drinks are the worst offenders when it comes to dental erosion, Walsh says some highly acidic juices – such as lemon, lime or orange juice – can do more damage to your teeth than other soft drinks.
Citric acid, which is commonly found in most soft drinks and especially in acidic juices, is one of the biggest offenders, Walsh says. Besides softening the outer teeth, it can also soften the internal parts of your teeth (the dentine), and reduces your saliva's ability to repair your teeth. "It steals away the calcium molecules that you normally find in saliva. By doing this, it makes the saliva unable to repair areas where minerals have been lost by exposure to acid." In addition to citric acid, some drinks (especially dark cola drinks) contain phosphoric acid. Walsh says these two acids combined are more resistant to saliva's neutralising effect. Lemon-flavoured cola drinks also include tartaric acid, which can also cause damage. Juices and soft drinks also contribute to dental erosion by making the mouth more acidic, providing the perfect growing environment for the bacteria that causes dental cavities. And before you reach for a sugar-free soft drink, you should know they also contain the same acids as other soft drinks. You should also watch out for sports drinks because they have similar ingredients to juice and soft drinks, and often when you drink them, you are dehydrated and your teeth don't have the protective effects of saliva.
Protecting your teeth
Walsh says you can neutralise acids from these drinks by rinsing your mouth with tap water, drinking certain still mineral waters (the ones with bicarbonates, which neutralises acid) or chewing sugar-free gum. It may seem counter-intuitive, but if you have these drinks, the worse thing you can do is brush your teeth. Wait for at least half hour because brushing will do even more damage to the already softened enamel. You can also enjoy your favourite drink occasionally and avoid damaging your teeth if you:
Have your drink with a meal
Don't sip your drink over several hours
Drink soft drinks and juices through a straw (so the liquid bypasses your teeth)
Drink water in between meal times.
It's also worth remembering that the best health drink is water.
If you limit other drinks to occasional treats both your teeth and the rest of your body will thank you.