A Valentooth Lesson About the Inequality of Sweets

written by samantha tillapaugh from the debtist

We have all heard the dental motto: “Sweets are bad for your teeth.” It has been preached from dental chairs, parental podiums, even billboard signs and children’s cartoons. But has anyone ever mentioned that not all sweets are the same? Which means, some sweets are better for your teeth than others. This dentist baker is here to share a few facts about sugary signs of love and how we may all enjoy delectable sweets on Valentine’s Day.

What Causes Tooth Decay?

Before we get into it, let us talk about how teeth decay. The bacteria that cause tooth-decay emit acids that break down enamel and dentin. A cavity occurs when the mouth becomes an acidic environment. The body is constantly trying to replenish tooth enamel and takes in calcium in order to do so. In fact, one of the benefits of fluoride is that it increases the uptake of calcium ions which are considered basic in nature. However, when there is an imbalance, bacteria turn the mouth into a more acidic environment, thus causing teeth to break down. 

Why Do Sweets Get a Bad Rap?

So why do sweets get such a bad rap? Although bacteria is the culprit, the presence of sweets help the decay process along. The bacteria feed on simple sugars and carbohydrates and thrive when there are a lot of it. This increasing the production of acidic by-product. The biggest problem with sweets is their tendency to be sticky (think chewy gummies, stretchy taffy, and old-fashioned bubble gum). Sticky sweets remain present for a long time, which then increases their exposure to the decay-causing bacteria. 

The Debtist Valentine’s Day

Saliva Saves The Day

One of the protective factors for your teeth is saliva. Saliva acts as a natural mouth rinse that flows in your oral cavity while removing food particles. It also breaks down food into smaller components which is removed from your oral cavity when you swallow. People who have low salivary flow (commonly caused by medication) have an increased risk for tooth decay. However, as protective as saliva is, it cannot remove sticky sweets easily, and need help from the good old toothbrush and floss for the stickier stuff. I mean, sometimes even the toothbrush and floss have difficulty. Have you ever gotten a Red Vine stuck in your teeth?

Not All Sweets Are Created Equal

Here is where the useful information comes in. Not all sweets are created equal because not all sweets are equally sticky! In fact, sweets that melt easily in saliva, such as chocolate, have low chances of causing tooth decay. More importantly, studies have shown that the amount of sweets may not be as important as the amount of time it is left in contact with teeth. 

One study asked two groups to drink a whole can of soda. One group was asked to drink it in one sitting, finishing the can right away. The second group was asked to take sips of the soda occasionally over a long period of time. Those who were in the second group had a higher prevalence of tooth decay. Why? Because the first group of people who drank the soda right away had their saliva break down the sticky sugary substance and rinse out the mouth, whereas the second group of people were constantly re-filming their teeth with sticky goodness, thereby negating the protective factors of saliva! It was the amount of time the teeth were in contact with the sweets that caused higher chances of tooth decay.

By this logic, the stickier the treat, the worse it is for our teeth. In fact, the bane of the pediatric dental community is none other than the orange-colored favorite snack: Cheetos! The stickiness of this carbohydrate-rich snack makes it more likely to cause cavities than most other sweets. Knowing this, it is important to prioritize eating sweets that are non-sticky or those that are easily dissolved by saliva. 

This is amazing news for all chocolate lovers because it means they can still enjoy Valentine’s Day! In fact, dark chocolate is the number one recommended sweet option according to most dentists. I, myself, eat a piece of dark chocolate after every meal – because I love sweets, too! Another alternative is candy bars with plenty of nuts. The nuts break up the stickiness while its rough texture helps to scrape biofilm from teeth. KIND bars are a good option to reach for. Lastly, even soft desserts such as cake and crème brulee are better than lollipops and sour-suckers, especially if you drink water afterwards.

The Debtist Valentine’s Day Sweets

Ways to Enjoy Sweets on Cupid’s Day

This isn’t to say that you can never eat your favorite gummy candy again. However, use this knowledge to fight off cavities! Here are some tips that still allow other sweet lovers like me to enjoy their favorite snacks on special occasions.

  • Keep the mindset – Icky Sticky. Choose the least sticky treat if possible. When presented with chocolate and candy, choose chocolate.
  • Get it done, and quickly! Eat sweets and snacks in one sitting and right away, instead of savoring it over a long period of time.
  • In general, homemade sweets are better than store-bought sweets, so pull out that apron and bake your heart away. 
  • After eating sweets, brush, and floss to prevent feeding the bad bacteria!
  • Use fluoride toothpaste since fluoride increases the uptake of calcium ions. This helps fight acidic oral cavities and helps re-mineralize enamel – the outer protective layer of teeth.
  • If you have low salivary flow, increase your saliva by chewing sugar-free gum and avoiding mouthwashes that contain alcohol. Listerine, for example, contains alcohol. My favorite mouthwash alternatives are ACT and BIOTENE. 
  • Drink water right after eating. This helps rinse out the mouth and wash away left-over foods, as well as break down sticky substances. 

So there you have it, straight from me! Valentine’s Day is saved, and we can continue to show love in the form of sweets, so long as we prioritize the right ones. 


Your dentist baker.

The Debtist

we’ve partnered with samantha tillapaugh, a general dentist practicing in southern california, to help spread the word about all cool things dental. when she isn’t sharing informative posts about teeth with us, she is writing at her own lifestyle blog as thedebtist. aside from writing, she travels the world, reads plenty of books sidled up next to her adopted, toothless cat, bakes sourdough bread and works as a tooth-fairy.