The Bitter Truth about “Naturally Sweet”

Practicing dentistry for a patient base conscious of healthy food and lifestyle choices is both an honor and an inspiration. We were puzzled, however, when many of my “purest health food only” patients were having high levels of tooth decay. How could this be? With a little research the mystery was solved and their goals for a healthier lifestyle supported.

For years, dentists have cautioned patients to carefully brush and floss to reduce the presence of dental plaque. All patients form plaque; it’s natural and unavoidable. Most patients have grown a new culture of plaque on their teeth within 12 hours (and, often much sooner) after brushing. After brushing in the morning, the afternoon plaque is not as noticeable because of increased salivary flow during the daytime hours. Regardless, plaque is present and up to its dastardly deeds.

The greatest culprit present in plaque is bacteria formally known as Mutans Streptococci. Less formally referred to as “nasty bugs”, the undesirable bacteria convert sugars (glucose, fructose, sucrose and cooked starches) into lactic acid making the acidic plaque powerful enough to de-mineralize the tooth enamel and the underlying dentin. This loss of tooth structure permits the invasion of bacteria which results in dental decay.

The health benefits of finding alternatives to refined white sugar are numerous. However, reduction of dental decay is not among the benefits. Similar to white sugar, the molecules in natural sweeteners are quickly digested, breaking down rapidly and providing the perfect fuel for energizing and colonizing the nasty bugs that inevitably destroy tooth enamel. Among sweeteners that encourage the growth of acidic plaque are barley malt, beet sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, date sugar, fructose, fruit juice, honey, malt syrup, raw sugar, sorbitol, turbinado sugar and a host of other “natural sugars.” Unfortunately, the harmful decay-causing bacteria don’t make concessions for health conscious consumers. The undesirable bacteria convert sugars into lactic acid making the acidic plaque powerful enough to de-mineralize the tooth enamel and the underlying dentin. This loss of tooth structure permits the invasion of bacteria which results in dental decay.

Fortunately, there are ways to enjoy your healthier choices of “all natural sweeteners” and not suffer the consequences of “all natural decay.” Follow these tips:

1. For dental health the “quantity and quality” of sugar is of less concern than the frequency during which sugar-sweetened foods are consumed during the day. In other words, it’s better to “pig out” on a large quantity of sugar (although other health risks make this choice undesirable also!) than to expose your teeth to a small amount of sugar on a frequent schedule. For instance, snacking on dates, on and off, during the afternoon is creating a circumstance of far greater dental harm than eating your preferred sweet immediately after your meal. The child who nurses a box of raisins while running errands with mom is far more likely to develop decay than the child who eats the box of raisins with lunch.

2. Follow nutritionist’s guidelines of 2 – 3 fruit servings a day. Did you know that two dates is a serving? A single serving is also considered to be 2 plums, 2 prunes, 2 tablespoons raisins or 10 large cherries.

3. Individuals with high salivary flow (very wet mouths) will suffer less dental decay than those with a chronically dry mouth. There are many reasons why salivary flow can be reduced ranging from medications to insufficient water intake. If you have a low salivary flow, you may want to increase your brushing beyond twice a day and sip water throughout the day.

4. Many patients discover that the brushing patterns and habits they were taught as children are not longer the best method for their current dental needs. Ask your hygienist to review the best method for removing the acid laden plaque that, particularly in adults, likes to accumulate along the gum lines at the softer juncture of the tooth’s crown and root surface.

5. Clearing sugar from the mouth is key to reducing dental caries. Simply rinsing and drinking water after enjoying sweet hot tea or sweetened coffee significantly reduces the exposure of sugar to harmful bacteria. Be careful, however, of sweets that are sticky or compress easily (bread, chips) into the deep grooves and crevices of the teeth. Rinsing will not often dislodge these food products and they can bathe the teeth in sugar for hours after eating.

6. Try herbal Stevia as a substitute sweetner. Or, try Xylitol, a natural sweetener from birch trees or corn cobs that many studies show actually reduces tooth decay rates!

7. Engage the services of a dentist and dental hygienist who shares interests in the goals that you have for your overall health as well as dental health. Nutritional information as well as a preventive cleaning schedule should be designed specifically to address your interests and needs.  Together, you can discover ways to enjoy your favorite foods while achieving your optimum wellness. If you have not yet chosen a dentist for the care of you and your family, you are welcomed to consider our office for your dental care. (404) 233-1102.

You are welcomed to submit your favorite low sugar recipes to us via our email: for posting on our website. As a dental practice of health-conscious individuals, we enjoy being a source of information and support to health conscious patients.