It’s 7:55 AM and your child’s school bus is arriving in 5 minutes. You’ve just placed a nutritious and delicious lunch inside a lunchbox and are wondering what to pack for snack time. How about some cookies? An apple? Dried mango? As a pediatric dentist, I am here to provide advice to make snacking as ‘teeth-friendly’ as possible. After all, we want your little one’s smile to be as healthy as it is beautiful.
There are genetic factors–such as bacterial profile and composition and secretion rate of saliva–that come into play when determining your risk for tooth decay. However, there are also significant factors that you have more control over, such as hygiene and diet. This is why it’s important to know what makes some snacks better for dentition than others. The bacteria in your mouth needs access to specific carbohydrates to cause cavities. Therefore, two important factors that determine how dangerous a snack food is for your teeth are the presence of these specific carbohydrates and the snack food’s retentiveness. In other words, we should consider what a snack is feeding the bacteria in our mouths and the amount of time it’s allowing the bacteria in our mouths to feast on it.
What does all this mean?! Here are some key takeaway points.
- Fresh fruit and vegetables are a go! As you may have expected, these get the green light for advisable snacking. The fibrous texture of many fruit and vegetables even provides teeth a cleansing effect, and stimulates the gums.
- Milk and other dairy products offer protective qualities! Cheese and unsweetened yogurt are great snack choices. Milk has shown to help strengthen teeth, partly due to the casein protein found in milk that prevents demineralization. Avoid sweetened flavored milk, however, as the sugar may counteract its benefits.
- “If it’s sticky, it’s icky!” Sticky foods, such as gummy candy and dried fruit (i.e. raisins!), adhere to the surfaces of teeth and allow bacteria to sustain the cavity-forming process over an extended period of time.
- Sharing the above sentiment, potato chips and cookies are dangerous as well. These foods are not sticky per se, but they get pulverized and packed into the grooves, nooks and crannies of teeth, where they remain for an extended period of time. This too offers bacteria prolonged fueling of the tooth decay process. Fun facts: data shows that children who snack on cookies have 3.89 times more dental decay than children who don’t snack on cookies. Cavities in children who snack on potato chips are 4.28 times more common than in children who don’t consume potato chips!
- Sweetened beverages? Soda is a sugar shower for your teeth. Research shows again and again the deleterious effects of frequent soda consumption. Less intuitively, fruit juice can be dangerous due to its acidity. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following recommendations: For children age 4-6, fruit juice should be restricted to 4 to 6 ounces daily; and for children ages 7-18, juice intake should be limited to 8 ounces or 1 cup of the recommended 2 to 2 ½ cups of fruit servings per day.
- Finally, the frequency of snacking is extremely important! Every time you snack, the environment in your mouth changes to one that is more conducive to forming cavities. Try and limit snacking to 1-2 times per day.
I certainly want your little one to enjoy all of his/her favorite foods, regardless of where they fall on this list! We just want to make sure this is done in the most protective way possible for the teeth. If your child did have potato chips, gummy candy, or any of the foods that may pose a greater risk to the teeth, go ahead and brush his/her teeth not long thereafter, if possible. If not, at least have your little one drink a lot of water (or milk!) after snacking to increase clearance and wash that snack off the teeth. Snack happy, but also snack healthy!