We all know that sugar's bad for our teeth and that we should watch what we eat and drink, but that can be easier said than done when so many sugars hide their identity behind scientific names and confusing measurements.
Every August, the Australian Dental Association (ADA) runs Dental Health Week promotions nationwide to raise awareness of common dangers to oral health and the best ways to protect your teeth and gums. This year's focus is on the hidden sugars that lurk in our groceries – even those that look healthy on the surface.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that the average person should have no more than 24 grams (about 6 teaspoons) of free sugar per day. Sugar provides energy to the body, but it's recommended that no more than 10% of your daily energy intake should come from dietary sugar (about 100–150 calories).
These recommendations vary according to age and individual nutrition needs, but the reality is that most Australians are having too much sugar – around 14 teaspoons a day, more than twice what's recommended. According to Australia's Oral Health Tracker, more than 70% of children and teenagers and almost half of adults consume too much sugar.
When you learn that a bowl of cereal and a glass of fruit juice for breakfast can already put you at the 6 teaspoons limit, it's not surprising that many of us are consuming a lot more sugar than we realise, and this is putting our oral health and general health at risk.
When you eat or drink sugar, it's not only you that's feeding on it. Bacteria that live on the surface of teeth also feed on sugar and other carbohydrates, which gives them the energy to multiply. They produce acids as a by-product that wear down tooth enamel and leach its minerals. This is what's known as tooth decay. Over time, this weakens teeth and forms cavities if the process isn't stopped.
The more sugar you consume, and the more frequently, the faster teeth will decay. If tooth decay reaches the centre of your tooth, this can cause a tooth infection or dental abscess that will need to be treated, or you could risk losing the tooth. Excessive sugar consumption is also linked to other health problems such as obesity and type 2 diabetes.
According to Australia's Oral Health Tracker, rates of tooth decay and gum disease in Australia have increased over the last decade. Almost one third of adults (32.1%) have untreated tooth decay and almost a quarter of children under 14 (23.5%) have experienced tooth decay in their permanent teeth.
Children are especially at risk from tooth decay, both because the enamel in their teeth is softer and because they're the biggest sugar consumers.
If you're determined to bring your sugar consumption down to 6 teaspoons per day (or less), you need to know what to look for when you're buying groceries – because it's not always straightforward.
Food and drink is required by law to list the amount of sugar it contains, but this can take some calculation.
Sugar content may be listed per serving and per 100g. Unless the serving size is standard, comparing sugar per 100g can be more helpful. The ADA recommends aiming for 15g per 100g at most, but ideally less than 5g.
Another important consideration is what type of sugar you're consuming. Some foods and drinks (such as fruit and dairy products) contain natural sugars, along with fibre, vitamins and minerals that are good for your teeth and body. Most processed foods contain added sugars, which have little nutritional value.
Keep in mind that when a product says it has 'no added sugar,' it may still have a lot of natural sugar. Even natural sugar can be bad for your teeth if you consume too much, or if fruits are blended or juiced to free the sugar from its bonds.
Added sugars are listed in ingredients on packaging, but not always under names that are obvious. In fact, there are more than 50 different ingredients that are basically another way of saying 'sugar,' and it's common for several of these to appear in the same ingredients list.
Just a few of these names are:
Ingredients are listed on packaging in order of quantity, so the higher up a sugar appears, the more prominent it will be.
Cutting down on sugar can make a big difference, but it's not the only thing you can do to protect yourself and your family against tooth decay.
Dentists recommend that you brush your teeth twice daily using fluoridated toothpaste and either an electric or manual toothbrush with soft bristles.
You should brush for two minutes in circular motions, making sure you clean all areas of your mouth.
A step many people skip, cleaning between your teeth using dental floss or an interdental brush removes plaque and leftover sugar that a toothbrush can't reach. This helps to lower your risk of tooth decay, bad breath and other problems.
To floss correctly, wind about 45cm of floss around your middle fingers and thumb and gently clean up and down the insides of your teeth. Your dentist can show you how to floss if you're not sure whether you're doing it right.
As well as aiming for 24 grams of sugar or less per day, you can also help your teeth and your general health by following a balanced diet that's high in vitamins and minerals.
Drinking milk and tap water with fluoride added helps to protect your teeth against decay.
Seeing your dentist every 6 to 12 months for a comprehensive check-up and teeth cleaning can lower your risk of serious dental problems, as your dentist can catch problems early, remove plaque from your teeth and give you advice about how to take better care of your oral health.
Your dentist will recommend how often you should have appointments, based on your individual needs.
If you or your family are due for a check-up and clean, get in touch with our friendly team at your local Face Value Dental clinic.
Australian Dental Association. Dental Health Week 2020 [Online] 2020. Available from: https://www.ada.org.au/Dental-Health-Week-2020/
Australian Health Policy Collaboration and Australian Dental Association. Australia's Oral Health Tracker [Online] 2018-20 [Accessed July 2020] Available from: ada.org.au/oralhealthtracker
Better Health Channel. Sugar [Online] 2011 [Accessed July 2020] Available from: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/sugar