Does sugar cause cavities?

Sugars and starches in foods including bread, fruit, vegetables, milk and breakfast cereals can promote tooth decay (dental caries). It is not the total amount of sugars and starches ingested that contributes to the formation of dental caries, but the frequency of carbohydrate consumption, how long the food is in the mouth, and if it sticks to the teeth. The longer teeth are in contact with carbohydrates in these foods, the greater the risk of tooth decay. However, if proper oral hygiene is maintained and fluoride used, caries are not likely to form.

What is the best way to prevent cavities?

Although a combination of proper oral hygiene (regular brushing and flossing of teeth) and fluoride use are the primary tools for preventing tooth decay, dietary changes may help. With respect to diet, it is not the total amount of sugars and starches eaten that contributes to the formation of cavities, but the frequency of carbohydrate consumption, other types of foods consumed, how long the food is in the mouth, and if it sticks to the teeth.

Sugars and starches can be consumed without harmful effects when they are ingested as part of main meals rather than eaten continuously throughout the day. Thus, spacing meals at least two hours apart and eating high-protein foods in combination with carbohydrates may protect against dental caries. Also, the chewing action in combination with raw and cooked foods in the mouth can increase salivary production, which minimizes the effect of carbohydrates on teeth.

Carbohydrate-containing foods that are sticky and that adhere to teeth are potentially more cavity-causing because they are difficult to brush away and may remain in the mouth for longer periods of time. Examples of foods that can stick between the teeth include caramels, dried fruit, bread, potato chips and crackers. Therefore, controlling the frequency of consumption of carbohydrate foods that adhere to teeth can help to prevent the formation of cavities.

To learn more about sugars and dental health, see our resource Clips on Sugar - Healthy Teeth for a Healthy You!