Sugar in dentistry and general health

Girl with sugar cube in her teeth photo to illustrate sugar in dental health

In Ireland according to statistics, we have an insatiable appetite for sugar. We are the biggest consumers of chocolate in the world at 11.2 kgs per person per year. Sugar has become a staple of our diet, where a lot of people have replaced fruit and vegetables , with processed, sugary food. A lot of sugar is hidden and can go unnoticed in our average day.

First most important meal of the day is breakfast and nowhere has our sugar intake switched so radically, as in this meal. Consumer watchdog Which?, tested the sugar content in 200 popular breakfast cereals and found 76 contained serious quantities of sugar. The likes of” Kellogg’s coco pops” contains 37% pure sugar per serving.

Another big problem is advertising where this product openly advertises during children’s daytime TV. I was watching a consumer programme where 3 different breakfasts were offered. A traditional grill , muffin and coffee and cereal with yoghurt were on offer. Surprisingly the muffin and coffee were deemed the worst in terms of high sugar,salt and calorie count with the grill coming out on top in terms of sugar salt and calories

In our own household we find it a struggle at breakfast. Occasionally cereal is on offer, in order not to prevent cravings in the future for the things that were never offered at home. My preference would be porridge, but we vary it with pancakes, cooked breakfasts, omelettes, French toast, in fact anything bar cereals.
Even dinnertime, where you might think you are safe from hidden sugar, a 500g jar of Uncle Ben’s sweet and sour sauce is shown to contain 22.5 teaspoons of sugar.

To put this in context a 330 ml can of Coca cola contains 9 teaspoons of sugar or a Mars Bar contains 8.5 teaspoons of sugar
Other healthy treats like Tesco’s Carrot and Coriander soup contains 5.5 teaspoons of sugar, Yop yoghurt drink (400g bottle) contains 12 teaspoons of sugar, Glensisk Organic Low Fat Strawberry Yoghurt 125 g tub contains 4 teaspoons of sugar. This compares to Kellogs Frosties 30g serving which has 2.5 teaspoons of sugar

In the evening meal department, Tesco Value Cheese and Tomato Pizza 480 g, contains 8.5 teaspoons of sugar. The advice would be to educate yourself and look at the list of ingredients, that make up any sauces or products that you buy.

The WHO (World Health Organisation) has said, that sugar is a major cause of long term health problems. Where the average calorific count for the day is recommended to be at 2000 calories, the recommended sugar intake, should be just 10% or 200 calories. A 500 ml bottle of Coke for example has 200 calories.

Refined sugars contain no vitamins, nutrients or fibre. The body responds to high raw sugar intake, by releasing high insulin levels, which promotes weigh gain and predisposes to obesity and a greater danger of developing diabetes .A high sugar diet can also lead to heart and strokes by raising the level of tryglycerides (unhealthy fats) in the blood. These bad fats clog the arteries in a manner similar to cholesterol.
The argument I present at our breakfast table (yawn! from my boys) is that porridge is a slow release food. It takes the body a while to break it down and there is a slow release of energy all morning.
Something like coca pops, releases raw sugar into the system, where insulin is called on immediately. The food is broken down quickly and you actually feel hungry and in the need for a snack top up early in the morning.

It helps that we were watching a programme recently where the cereal box rather than the cereal in question, being fed to rats, was found to be more nutritious.

Sugar & the Health of your Teeth
When a patient attends and receives the bad news that three fillings are needed, I’m often met with the statement ,“I brush my teeth all the time!”.

There are two dental problems that frequent the dental surgery more than others. The first is gum disease and you prevent this by brushing your teeth twice a day, flossing and getting your teeth cleaned every six months.
The second problem frequently encountered is tooth decay and you avoid this by watching your sugar intake.

Any of my patients reading this and who have brought their kids for a check up, will be familiar with the story I tell of the identical twins. There are two twins, that are both looked after by their Nan (no insult intended to Nan’s). Their Nan loves the boys dearly and loves to spoil them. Every day, the boys get a bag of sweets each. One of the twins is a glutton and the bag of sweets is devoured instantly. The second is far more crafty and for hours after you can hear russling of paper as he sneaks one sweet after another and maximises his pleasure by sucking the sweets all day. This is Nan’s and the boys secret.

The boys are taken by their mum for their dental visit. The question I ask is “will the two boys, having eaten the same number of sweets, need the same number of fillings?”
The answer is no. The crafty guy much to his mum’s horror, needs 5 fillings, while the glutton needs none.
This is where, on questioning her sons, that Nan’s secret is disclosed.

Each time you eat a sweet you will have decay for 40 minutes. If you have 8 sweets in 2 minutes, you will have 40 minutes decay. If a sweet is sucked for 20 minutes, then there will probably be 60 minutes decay. If another sweet is eaten 1 hour later, then the process repeats itself.

Sucrose, glucose etc. are converted to acid by the enzymes in your mouth .A ph. of seven is neutral (e.g. water). Your teeth decay, below a ph. of 5.5. It takes your body, 40 minutes producing saliva, to bring the ph. above 7 again. Coca Cola has an acid as part of it’s ingredients and it is also laced with sugar which makes it an enemy of your teeth. Apart from sugar any of the natural acids eg fruit juice can also cause decay by lowering the ph.

It is hard to say no to kids today, with temptations everywhere. You also have to thread that line, of giving advice, without being a killjoy.
I personally have Coca Cola along with breakfast cereals as my bug bear. We don’t bring Coca Cola into the house too often. When it comes to parties I make sure it’s included. I am found, with an exasperated look, keeping an eye on my guys and if I see them will a glass of Coke, the words “I’m so disappointed” are heard. It works on a couple of them. Two of my guys can be heard to say “what a pity”. All you can do as a parent is try and pass on what you perceive to be wisdom and hope it will rub off.

When it comes to buying the food for the week, keep in mind some of the points that I have brought up here. You, as a parent set the standards for the next generation and for you own general and dental health

You are what you eat.

Copyright Dr. Patrick O’Brien, Dunmanway Dental Practice, County Cork