Why do children suffer tooth decay? In a word – FOOD! When parents are asked what they think is the reason their children have decay, most respond “poor brushing” or “not flossing”. While everyone knows these are important in maintaining good oral health, few know that it is the child’s diet which can create the PERFECT STORM of tooth decay.

Why is diet the single most important risk factor in tooth decay? Here’s an example that illustrates this concept. Everyone agrees that an orange is a healthy food choice. An orange contains many healthy compounds as well as sugar and acid, two critical ingredients in the tooth decay equation. Eat an orange once per day and you will enjoy the benefits without any downside. Eat oranges constantly throughout the day, however, and the sugar and acids in the oranges will create an environment which encourages the decay causing bacteria, or sugar bugs, to grow faster than the “goodbacteria”. The acid in the oranges will also erode your teeth, making things worse. Once the sugar bugs “take over the neighbourhood”, they begin to cause decay by creating acids using the sugars in the orange, as well as the other carbohydrates we eat. The concept to remember is frequency of eating. The more often we eat foods which contain sugar or acid (and it’s really bad if they contain sugar AND acid), the more likely we will experience tooth decay.

The second concept is food consistency or “stickiness”. Peanut butter you grind yourself is sticky but does not contain sugar. No harm is done to our teeth. On the other hand, dried fruit is sticky and it contains lots of sugar. Crackers and cookies are not sticky by themselves, but mix them with saliva and you have a sticky, starchy glue. This “glue” gets pushed between teeth and into the grooves of teeth where cavities occur, and where toothbrushes will never reach. Letting the starch or sugar stick to the teeth for long periods of time provides a prolonged feast for the decay-causing bacteria, dramatically increasing the risk of tooth decay. This introduces a third concept in the link between diet and tooth decay – oral clearance. Food which is cleared from the mouth quickly by swallowing does little harm to our teeth.

How do you put these concepts to work? Decrease the frequency of between meal snacks, don’t allow “grazing”. Choose foods which will not stick to teeth. Vegetables in their “natural” containers, nuts and hard cheeses are great choices. Choose foods which are rapidly removed from the mouth by swallowing. For between-meal drinks, avoid juices, fruit cocktails and soft drinks of any kind. Water will quench thirst far better and without doing any damage to teeth. Read labels. Sugar is often listed in several ways on labels – glucose, dextrose, sucrose, inverted sugar. The closer to the beginning of the list of contents the more sugar is contained within that product. Lastly, when choosing snacks for children, choose foods which are not processed or packaged. Follow these ideas and your child will probably eat better at meal times because they will be hungrier.

Making smart choices in foods for your children will keep them healthy. It will also reduce both the risk of tooth decay and the cost of your dental visits.