A few questions that you are probably always asked as a parent when you come to our pediatric dental office or any other dental office are, what kind of items does your child like to eat for snacks and how often is your child snacking? Healthy teeth and gums are not only maintained by proper hygiene and regular preventative dental visits, but also a healthy, balanced diet. We traditionally think of sugary, sweet snacks as unhealthy dental snacks, but there are other ones too that can be just as harmful to our teeth and mouths. The bacteria in the plaque in our mouths love sugar, and other items that are broken down into sugars; these include refined carbohydrates and starches. The bacteria metabolize the sugar and produce acid (plaque acid) which breaks down and dissolves the enamel of our teeth, and eventually causes cavities. Our saliva is a very important protective factor that helps prevent cavities. The saliva washes away food debris, has bicarbonate that helps neutralize the acid produced by the bacteria, and has calcium and phosphorous that help repair tooth damage and decay caused by the acid.
The total amount of refined carbohydrates/sugars in foods is important in enhancing or lessening the cariogenicity (ability to cause cavities) of a snack, but perhaps even more important are the retainability or ease of clearance of the food item from the mouth, and the frequency of carbohydrate/sugar consumption. Thus, the reason dentists question the food items and frequency of snacking. Food items that have a gooey, sticky or mushy texture tend to stick to the teeth and are difficult to clear from the mouth. Food items that are not only high in sugars or carbohydrates, but also linger in the mouth due to their sticky consistency include gooey/chewy candies, pastries, breads, pastas, rice, chips, crackers, cookies, cereals, fruit snacks/gummies, raisins, craisins, and other dried fruits. The longer a food item is in the mouth, the longer and more plaque acid is produced and the more likely an individual is to get cavities. The frequency of carbohydrate intake is also possibly more important in enhancing cariogenicity than total amount of carbohydrate intake. This concept comes back to the idea that saliva is a protective factor in that it washes away food and contains bicarbonate to help neutralize acid. It can take up to 20 minutes after eating for saliva to wash away food and neutralize acid produced by bacteria. If a child is a “grazer” (constantly eating) then the saliva never has a good opportunity to clear the mouth of food and raise the pH (reduce acidity). The teeth are essentially sitting in an acid bath. Limiting snacking to 2 to 3 times per day can help reduce acid production, thus help reduce the risk for cavities.
Attributes that make a food item low cariogenic and a healthy dental snack include high protein content, higher fat content to aid in oral clearance, low refined carbohydrate content, high mineral content, a high pH, and the ability to stimulate saliva flow to aid in washing away debris. Some examples of healthy dental snacks include cheese and yogurt which are high in vitamin D, calcium, and phosphorous; crisp fruits and vegetables which are high in water and fiber that stimulate chewing and saliva flow and help remove plaque; nuts which are high in protein and minerals; meat, poultry, fish, and eggs which are high in phosphorous and protein.
In summary, healthy snacking habits that can reduce the risk of cavities include, eating low sugar, high protein, and high mineral food items, avoiding gooey or mushy snacks, limiting snacking to 2-3 times per day, eating snack items quickly, and rinsing and/or brushing after snacking. With proper knowledge, we can help guide children to maintain healthier diets and help reduce their risk of cavities for a lifetime.
Please keep the questions coming!
One more reason to switch to healthy snacks: Goldfish and Ritz Bits Recall due to Salmonella