The effects of acid on teeth aren't so well known. Not exactly the scary-looking acid that burns stuff in science-fiction movies, but the natural acids in the food and drinks we consume.
Repeated exposure to high levels of acid can erode teeth, meaning it gradually wears away the hard tissues of the tooth. This is often called 'acid wear'. While they might seem healthy, juices (as well as kombucha, sports drinks and soft drinks) contain acids that contribute to this problem.
Acid erosion also increases the risk of tooth decay.
Which beverages are the most acidic?
Making fresh juice at home has become popular, but juice can contain high levels of acid — as do soft drinks, sugar-free drinks, vitamin waters and even vitamin C tablets. (If you take vitamin C tablets, swallow them whole rather than chewing.)
These beverages are very acidic:
- soft drinks (both sugar-free and those containing sugar)
- energy drinks
- citrus fruits (for example, lemons, limes, oranges)
- most fruit juices
- most cordials
- vitamin waters
- pre-mixed alcoholic drinks
Beverages containing caffeine, such as coffee, also increase the risk of erosion because they reduce saliva production — saliva helps protect teeth.
Preventing acid erosion in teeth
It's important to take steps to protect your teeth from acid wear. In the early stages of erosion, the acid strips away the top layers of tooth enamel. Later on, the acid can expose the next layer (the softer 'dentine' underneath the tooth enamel) or even the central pulp of the tooth (its soft centre which contains blood vessels and nerves).
If left untreated, dental erosion can eventually lead to the loss of tooth structure, which requires complex, time-consuming and potentially costly dental treatments.
You don't have to quit your beverage of choice entirely — especially if it offers some benefits, such as vitamins and minerals — but it's a good idea to follow these tips:
- Drink plenty of water, especially between meals and juices or smoothies.
- If you do drink acidic beverages, try to do it while eating meals because the extra saliva production will help to neutralise the acid.
- Use a (reusable) straw to drink soft drinks, juices and sports beverages as this will reduce the amount of acid your teeth are exposed to.
- Beware of claims that sugar-free beverages are better for your teeth. The lack of sugar may be good for preventing dental decay, but the drink may still be acidic.
- Avoid brushing your teeth straight after consuming acidic foods and drinks since it can help strip the now-softened top layer of enamel.
Packaged drinks: how to read the label
If you're a fan of packaged drinks, such as sports drinks, one quick way to work out whether your beverage is too acidic or contains too much sugar is to get familiar with the ingredients, says the Australian Dental Association.
To check for acidity, look for things like citric acid (a flavour enhancer) or sodium benzoate (a preserving agent). As a rule, if the ingredient ends in '-ate', it's an acidic preservative of some kind. Check not just for the word 'sugar' but also for honey, rice syrup and even the healthy-sounding 'organic dehydrated cane juice'.
The bottom line
Water is always the best way to quench a thirst. In most parts of Australia, it's on tap and free — and contains fluoride, a safe, naturally occurring mineral that helps fortify teeth. If you love your beverages, consume acidic drinks and foods in moderation and follow the tips above.
If you love fruit (and veggies), opt for whole fruits instead of juice as they contain fibre and less sugar, and are more filling.
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