It has often been said that we are what we eat – and this is especially true when it comes to oral health. Our daily nutritional intake or the foods and drinks we consume every day affect our dental health, as well as our overall health and wellbeing.
A healthy diet helps to reduce one’s risk of developing tooth decay and other common health issues, such as heart disease, obesity, stroke, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers.
Of the many substances comprising the food and drink we consume, sugar is the one that poses the most harm to oral health.
To help you understand how sugar harms the teeth and the body in general and how it can hide in various food products, here’s some important information we put together about sugar.
What is sugar?
Sugar is easy to detect in its common form – the one we see on our tables or in our pantry. It’s that sweet crystalline substance that is sometimes coloured white (refined) or brown. It can be powdery, as in the case of confectioner’s sugar, or liquid as in the case of pancake syrup.
It is commercially sourced from sugar cane or sugar beets and is one of the most common sources of dietary carbohydrates consumed every day.
As a carbohydrate, sugar functions as an energy source. Sugar includes all sweet forms of carbohydrates, although the term is mostly used to refer to table sugar or sucrose.
When we consume carbohydrates, the body breaks it down and converts it into glucose – which is a readily usable energy source for the body.
Types of sugar
There are many types of sugar, and each one is described in detail below.
1. Sugar or sucrose
As the most common type of sugar, sucrose is sometimes used interchangeably with the more general term ‘sugar.’ Also known as ‘table sugar,’ sucrose is a naturally occurring carbohydrate and is found in most fruits and vegetables.
Table sugar is mostly sourced from sugar cane or sugar beets and comprises 50 per cent glucose and 50 per cent fructose. It is found in many food items, including cookies, pastries, ice cream, candy, catsup, breakfast cereals, fruit juice, soda, canned fruit and processed meat.
2. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a popular sweetener. It is made from cornstarch and comprises both fructose and glucose. There are different types of HFCS containing varying amounts of fructose and glucose. However, in terms of composition, it is almost the same as table sugar or sucrose.
HFCS is used mostly in consumer products, such as cookies, breads, cakes, cereal bars, candy, ice cream and soda.
3. Agave nectar
Agave nectar or agave syrup is a relatively newer type of sugar made from the agave plant. It is considered a ‘healthy’ alternative to regular sugar as it doesn’t spike blood sugar levels the conventional types of sugar do. It is used as a sweetener in so-called ‘health foods,’ like granola bars and sweetened yoghurts, and as a table sugar substitute for coffee, tea and other beverages.
Do note, however, that agave syrup is composed of 70 to 90 per cent fructose and 10 to 30 per cent glucose.
4. Other types of sugar with glucose and fructose
Most added sugars used in food products or processing and sweeteners contain both glucose and fructose. Examples of these include beet sugar, blackstrap molasses, brown sugar, caramel, carob syrup, castor sugar, coconut sugar, date sugar, demerara sugar, fruit juice (and concentrates), golden sugar/syrup, grape sugar, honey, icing sugar, maple syrup, molasses, muscovado sugar, raw sugar, sorghum syrup, treacle sugar, turbinado sugar and yellow sugar.
5. Sugars containing glucose
Sweeteners that contain pure glucose or glucose combined with sugars other than fructose are included in this category.
Ingredients like barley malt, brown rice syrup, corn syrup, dextrin, dextrose, diastatic malt, ethyl maltol, glucose, lactose, malt syrup, maltodextrin, maltose and rice syrup belong to this category.
6. Sugars that contain only fructose
There are only two sweeteners that only contain fructose: crystalline fructose and fructose. Crystalline fructose is usually added to sports drinks. It is also used as a nutritional supplement in animal feed and as an ingredient in pharmaceutical and personal care products. Fructose or fruit sugar is used in making soft moist cookies, reduced-calorie products, nutrition or energy bars, etc.
7. Other types of sugar (no glucose or fructose)
Less sweet and less common but sometimes used as sweeteners, there are sugars that have no glucose or fructose at all, namely D-ribose and galactose.
D-ribose is an important sugar molecule that’s believed to boost health and exercise performance – which is probably why there are D-ribose supplements in the market. D-ribose, or ribose for short, is also known as riboflavin. Red meat, poultry, fish and nuts, eggs, dairy, asparagus, broccoli and enriched bread are good sources of D-ribose.
Like D-ribose, galactose has medicinal uses as it has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Milk and yoghurt are common sources of galactose.
Sugar and your teeth
There’s absolutely no need to avoid sugars that are naturally present in whole foods, like fruits, vegetables and dairy products. This is because these food sources not only contain minimal amounts of sugar but also provide plenty of fibre, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. So, whatever negative health effects of sugar there are, these are offset by the nutritional density of these foods.
Instead, what you need to watch out for are the large amounts of added sugar in processed food products. These sugar additives are popularly used in food processing to add bulk, taste, colour or thickness to certain food products. Added sugar also acts as a preservative that prevents mould formation and product wastage.
Added sugars comprise simple sugars, sweeteners and syrups added to food or drinks during the manufacturing process or in the cooking and preparation of food. Added sugars provide no essential nutrients to the body. Instead, they add more harmful calories and can contribute to health problems, such as obesity and tooth decay.
How sugar affects oral health
Sugars are a major cause of tooth decay. When the tooth’s hard outer enamel layer is damaged, tooth decay occurs.
It starts as a sticky film of bacteria (plaque) forming a layer on the teeth. These bacteria in the plaque feed on sugars as their primary source of energy. They damage the tooth enamel by producing acids that penetrate the tooth surface and dissolve certain important tooth minerals, like calcium, phosphate and fluoride.
When this process continues unabated over the course of months, the enamel deteriorates and cavities appear, destroying the affected tooth little by little.
How sugar affects one’s overall health
Aside from causing significant harm to one’s oral health, sugars also affect other parts of the body, leading to certain health problems.
- One study revealed that sugar can impair brain functioning and cause memory problems and brain inflammation.
- Sugar was found to weaken the body’s ability to respond to or manage stress.
- High-sugar diets have also been linked to depression.
- It has also been found that sugar can cause premature ageing and reduces the ability of the skin to defend itself from free radicals.
- Several studies have found a link between high sugar intake and cardiovascular disease, particularly coronary heart disease.
- A high-sugar diet can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Aside from these, sugar also affects the pancreas, blood vessels and immune system. Therefore, it’s important to decrease one’s sugar intake to reduce the likelihood of developing serious medical conditions and to maintain overall health.
Tips to reduce sugar intake
Reducing sugar consumption will benefit not only your oral health but also your general health.
To decrease your sugar intake, try to implement the following tips:
- Avoid eating out, fast food and processed food; instead, prepare and cook your meals.
- Out of sight, out of mind. Remove sugar sources and temptations from your table, kitchen or work area. Don’t stock up on candies, sodas, dried/canned fruit and other sweets.
- Opt for high-fibre breads, pasta and cereals; avoid white or refined alternatives.
- Instead of drinking fruit juice (whether homemade or from the can or bottle), eat fresh fruit.
- If you must have sweets, regulate or reduce your intake. Keep track of the sweets you eat.
- Try to keep away from food products with added sugar.
To help prevent tooth decay and ensure oral health, keep the following in mind:
- Let your kids get used to a low-sugar diet early on.
- Stick to eating more fresh whole fruits and vegetables than juicing.
- Always rinse your mouth after eating or drinking sugary items.
- Floss daily and brush your teeth with a fluoride toothpaste twice a day.
- See your dentist at least twice a year.
Maintain good oral and general health with less dietary sugar
Sugar is a carbohydrate that serves as a quick energy source. However, added sugar poses more harm than good to your overall health and is especially bad for your teeth.
Hopefully, after reading about sugar and its health implications, you’ll be able to find ways to reduce your sugar intake and enjoy good oral and general health.
For more dental health tips and advice on your other oral health concerns, please reach out to Brunswick Family Dental..