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Choosing Chocolate

written by samantha tillapaugh from the debtist

Chocolate is my dessert of choice. Actually, it’s my snack of choice, and when it comes to foods good for our teeth, sometimes I think that choosing chocolate could be good advice. It is true that I will take every opportune moment to make chocolate-eating okay, but there is logical reasoning to backup my stance. And we’ve got our salivary glands to thank for that.

Saliva is Our Superhero

There are multiple protective factors for our teeth, one of which is the saliva that we produce. The hallmark of dental cavities is the demineralization of our teeth initiated by acidogenic plaque flora. In human speak, this means that bacteria living on our teeth convert left-over foods (in the form of plaque) into acidic by-products, which then causes our teeth to rot. Combating this process is our saliva.

Saliva helps prevent cavity formation in three epic ways. First, it cleanses the mouth via its salivary flow, breaking down plaque and washing it away from our teeth. Second, it provides a buffering system by depositing calcium which is good for our teeth, especially when it recognizes an increase in acidity by a lowering of pH levels. Lastly, it has been shown to oppose demineralization by supplying minerals, specifically calcium. In other words, saliva is our superhero.

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So why does this make choosing chocolate good advice?

Why Chocolate Is Better Than Other Snacks

Do you remember that M&M selling point, “melt in your mouth, not in your hand”? That’s exactly the selling point I’m going to pitch here. Chocolate has an ability to be broken down by your saliva that most foods on the grocery shelves do not. If you stick a piece of chocolate on your tongue, it dissolves. If a stray piece of chocolate gets stuck on your tooth, it will also dissolve. However, if you eat a piece of candy, the stickiness makes it very difficult for saliva to wash it away from your tooth. Unfortunately, when saliva and a piece of Jolly Rancher battle it out, no matter how many waves of saliva tries to pry that stubborn candy off your tooth, the Jolly Rancher will win every time. I suppose this is part of the reason why my sister’s candy-loving self had cavities, when my chocolate-loving self had none.

However, it isn’t just candies that chocolate beats. Some of the worst kid snacks come in the form of non-sweets as well. As much as I love Cheetos, the cheesy goodness leaves a grimey mark, and it is actually the number one snack that dentists warn against. All you have to do is look at a child’s fingers, or have them smile at you afterwards, and you’ll see why. In fact, all chips covered in some sort of flavor (such as barbecue, sour cream and onion, and yes, Hawaiian!) can leave a residue.

Likewise, juices, which so many parents love, also contain heavy amounts of sugar, especially when store-bought. Unfortunately, juices stick to teeth despite being a liquid, and can be difficult to remove. And don’t get me started on soda. Worse than being sticky, those beverages are actually acidic, which we already know is a factor in the beginnings of cavity formation. Well-meaning parents have turned to dried fruits, but those too have their down-sides. Have you ever gotten a dried mango or a dried date stuck in between your teeth? If you’ve experienced this, then you know that the fibrous being likes to be retentive, and no matter how hard you try to maneuver your tongue and cheek to dislodge said piece, efforts end up being either futile or extremely excessive. Lastly, any snack that stains kid’s teeth and tongues, even momentarily, I would warn against. If it sticks enough to stain, then it’s sticky enough to stay.

The Tooth (and Health) Benefits of Chocolate

But back to chocolate. I am not saying that all chocolate is good, or that chocolate all the time should be one’s daily practice (I wish!). But I am saying that compared to the many things we reach for on the shelf, chocolate falls under that category of “not so bad”. It is a basic snack (in terms of pH) that does not contribute to the acidic environment detrimental to our teeth. It is easily broken down by saliva and just as easily washed away. And chocolates are contributors of calcium, which is essential in opposing the demineralization process. Recent research posits that chocolate actually is a superfood for our teeth because it contains a chemical called CBH, which is similar to caffeine. CBH has been shown to be more effective than fluoride in strengthening enamel in animal tests, and there is hope to add this chocolate superpower into mouthwashes and toothpastes for humans in the future. So for those who are against fluoride treatments, perhaps the answer to the solution lies in chocolate! Chocolate also contains antioxidants that have been argued to protect your teeth, the list of which includes tannins and polyphenols which supposedly prevent the sticking of substances to your teeth and neutralize the bacteria that reduces bad breath. As if this wasn’t enough, have I mentioned that chocolate has been shown to improve not only mood elevation, but also blood flow? Not that you needed the extra ammo.

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Important Caveats and Tips on Chocolate Eating

If you do reach for chocolate bars on the shelf, here are some very important caveats and tips to consider.

  • Not all chocolates are created equal. When I say that chocolate is healthy, I am talking about chocolate that’s as close to the cacao bean as possible. The best thing to do would be to chew on cacao nibs, but I think that most people would not find that palatable. The second best would be raw chocolate which is less processed. When in doubt, reach for simple dark chocolate bars with 70% cacao or more, with less than 6-8 grams of sugar per serving. Obviously, the order of chocolate healthiness goes from dark chocolate to milk chocolate to white chocolate, so as we go down the tier, the sugar content increases and the benefits of chocolate decreases. And please do not choose anything other than simple chocolate bars or chips or nibs. As we’ve previously discussed, any additives to chocolate bars in the forms of nougat, dried fruit, and - the absolute worst – caramel (!) may make it taste better, but reverses everything I’ve said in this piece, thus turning chocolate from your best friend into your worst enemy.
  • Eating a whole bar of chocolate in one sitting is better than eating a piece every hour. A whole bar in one sitting?! I know what you’re thinking. “She’s crazy!”. But it’s the truth. Our saliva works diligently to wash away excess foods. But it doesn’t help if you are constantly re-dirtying the teeth every hour after the saliva has already done its cleaning up after you. Eating a piece every hour is like putting the teeth at a perpetual state of exposure to chocolate. I’d rather you expose it once and get it over with. Plus, the amount of exposure to chocolate when you eat a bar in one sitting is actually LESS than when you eat it over the course of a few hours. Why? Because our teeth has a limited amount of tooth surface. When you’ve covered the teeth with chocolate, eating more chocolate will not cause more of it to stick. The tooth is already covered! The excess chocolate just goes down the pipe. But if you wait one hour, your saliva has freed up tooth structure for more chocolate binding. As the saying goes… “work smarter, not harder”.
  • Brushing your teeth afterwards is still recommended. If you don’t have access to a toothbrush, swishing with water or drinking some water would be very helpful in the dissolving process. This is especially true the farther you go down the chocolate spectrum.
  • Chew sugar-free xylitol gum afterwards. Xylitol gum has its benefits, but chewing gum (or anything!) in general is beneficial because it stimulates salivary flow. The minute we start chewing, we send our body a signal to increase saliva. So chewing sugar-free gum afterwards helps with the dissolving of any left-over chocolates, if you were at all worried.

So the catch-all phrase of “sweets are bad” isn’t entirely true after all. If anything, I would posit that sticky foods are bad, and sticky sweets are worse. But chocolates … chocolates make my world go round.

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.