If there’s one thing we’re all after, it’s a healthy, confident, bright, and radiant smile.
What you put into your body is every bit as important as brushing and flossing when it comes to keeping your teeth strong, your gums healthy, and your breath fresh. And, like so much else in the body, it all comes down to bacteria.
Sure, you already know how important it is to brush and floss every day, and you’re probably well-versed in the necessity of your 6-monthly dental check-up––but did you know that there's more you could be doing for your dental health?
In fact, to put it more bluntly, there’s a lot you could stop doing in order to improve the health of those pearly whites.
You see, your gut isn’t the only part of your body with beneficial bacteria that keep you strong and healthy: your oral cavity is also teeming with these magical microbes. In fact, your mouth, ears, throat, and nasal passages can be home to up to 800 unique organisms! While most of them are hugely beneficial—keeping your teeth and gums in tip top shape, supporting good immune function, and promoting heart health—a few rogue species aren't so great, making it important to keep the balance of bacteria just right so that it favors beneficial strains.
As with your gut microbiome, your dietary choices play a significant role in keeping your oral microbiome in optimal shape. To help you make the best choices, we’ve outlined the 10 worst foods and drinks for your teeth, along with a few alternatives that’ll keep you smiling!
You may feel pretty virtuous passing up a lunchtime cookie or skipping dessert, but it’s amazing just how easily refined sugar and sweeteners can sneak into your daily diet. The dressing you pour over that otherwise healthy salad, an iced tea or diet soda at lunch, the ketchup you put on your burger...it all adds up, even when you’re focusing on making positive choices.
Not only can sweet treats get stuck between your teeth, certain types of bacteria in your mouth can convert the sugar they contain into a sticky substance called exopolysaccharide, which can coat your teeth, making it easier for unwanted bacteria to stick to them. What's more, sugar is a delicious food source for unwanted bacteria, like S. mutans, one of the big bads when it comes to damaging your teeth and gums. A diet high in sugar and sweeteners lets this undesirable bacteria flourish and crowd out the beneficial bacteria, leaving your oral microbiome out of balance, and leading to the kind of issues that have you in the dentist’s chair more often than you want (not to mention have you struggling with bad breath!).1,2
Try this instead: Soda is one of the worst offenders, and choosing diet versions isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card, since artificial sweeteners (with the exception of xylitol) destroy beneficial bacteria.3 Filtered water is the best choice you can make, but it can take some getting used to if you’re a regular soda drinker. Try flavoring your water with slices of fruit or cucumber, or experiment with unsweetened herbal teas.
For a sweet treat, try homemade granola bars with natural sweeteners such as honey (a powerful prebiotic) or dark chocolate, which contains healthy fibers and polyphenolic polymers that are potent antioxidants and can help lower temporary inflammation throughout the body.4
2. Gummy snacks and supplements
You might be surprised that gummies made the list––after all, they're often marketed as being relatively healthier snack options. Unfortunately, they're not very good for you. Not only is sugar often one of the main ingredients in these foods, they also leave sticky little traces in the crevices of your teeth, allowing sugar to attack your teeth and gums long after you’ve finished eating.
It’s not only the obvious offenders you need to be aware of, though. People commonly see gummy fruit snacks and dried fruits like raisins, cranberries, and goji berries as an alternative to candy-based snacks, and many well-intentioned parents send their kids to school with a box of raisins or a dried fruit bar to eat at snack time.
While these foods are far better than candy in terms of vitamins and minerals, they’re not a tooth-friendly snacking choice for kids or for adults, as they're high in sugar—and although it’s a relatively healthier form of sugar than refined varieties, your teeth can’t tell the difference.5
And don't forget about gummy multivitamin supplements! While they can be a convenient way to help your kids get some extra nutrients, those cute little supplements are often packed with sugar, and can really do a number on kids' teeth.
Try this instead: Cutting way back on gummy foods is a no-brainer, but there's no reason to forgo all dried fruits, as they can be a nutritious addition to your diet. Just try to eat them as part of a meal rather than as a snack. That way, you’ll be able to brush your teeth soon afterwards and avoid spending hours with sticky particles gumming up your crevices. Even better? Focus on eating whole, organic fruit like apples (nature’s toothbrush!) instead—you’ll not only be doing your teeth a favor, but the prebiotic fiber and nutrients will benefit every aspect of your health.
3. Potato chips
Many brands and flavors of potato chips are sugar-free, and while no one would think of chips as a health food, you might not expect them to make the top ten when it comes to the worst foods for your teeth.
The problem with chips is that, just like gummy foods, they have a tendency to get stuck in the spaces between your teeth and gums and can spend hours attacking your mouth, especially when eaten as a snack between meals.5 They’re also high in starch, which turns to sugar as it breaks down in your mouth and provides food for the kinds of bacteria you don’t want to encourage.
Try this instead: People often opt for air-popped, sugar-free popcorn as a healthy alternative to chips, but try to save this for occasions when you have access to dental floss, as it’s also likely to get stuck between your teeth. A far better alternative is sea salt kale chips, or even raw vegetable sticks served with a nutritious dip. They’ll provide the crunch factor you’re looking for when you reach for a bag of chips, and they’re packed with the vitamins your body needs to stay healthy.
4. Acidic foods
You might have heard that water with lemon juice is the ideal way to kick-start your day, or that drinking a citrus-laced drink can be a good way to balance your body's pH. While it's definitely a nice way to hydrate and a good source of vitamin C, drinking water flavored with straight citrus juice throughout the day is not the best move when it comes to oral health.6 Our teeth are protected by a strong layer of enamel—it’s what allows us to drink hot coffee or enjoy a cool smoothie pain-free. An acidic oral environment can damage this precious tooth enamel, leaving nerve endings exposed and resulting in sensitive teeth. Lemon juice, citrus fruits, tomatoes, alcohol, and coffee are all highly acidic, and best consumed mindfully.
Try this instead: To avoid prolonged acid attacks, it’s best to consume acid-rich foods at mealtimes rather than between meals, and remember to brush your teeth around half an hour after eating to best protect your tooth enamel. If you’re a big fan of lemon juice in your water, stick to a couple of lemon slices in your glass instead of a squeeze of straight lemon juice. You'll still get the flavor and won't have quite the same level of acidity.
5. Wheat and grains
Another potentially surprising addition to the list is grains, including wheat. Grains like wheat and barley contain phytic acid and gluten, both of which are very hard to digest; as they pass through your digestive system, they leach minerals (including calcium) from your body.7 Over time, this can lead to loss of minerals in your bones and your teeth, enamel erosion, and can contribute to an acidic oral environment as well. In fact, the effects of these anti-nutrients can be so pronounced that simply removing them from your diet may be one of the best things you can do for your oral health: Dr. Weston A. Price's groundbreaking study into the oral health of indigenous peoples found that tribes that ate little to no grains also tended to have nearly perfect dental health.
Try this instead: Focus on gluten-free grains such as rice, or try soaking, sprouting, or fermenting grains to make them easier to digest. You could always play around with exciting new food combinations—for instance, try serving your pasta sauce with spiralized zucchini for a light, vitamin-packed meal.
6. Energy drinks
Some of the drinks we consume in the quest for health and vitality are actually some of the least beneficial when it comes to oral health. The sports drinks or energy drinks you might utilize to help get you through your marathon training or cardio workout may be packed full of refined sugar, sweeteners, and acidic ingredients, which are likely to wear down that all-important tooth enamel.
Try this instead: If you want to be smiling when you hit the finish line, avoid sports drinks altogether. When it comes to hydration, stick to filtered water, and support optimum energy levels with drinks containing natural electrolytes, such as coconut water mixed with a little salt, along with a healthful, well-balanced diet, a good night’s sleep, and athlete-specific probiotic supplementation.
7. Protein bars and granola
While you may find that granola and protein bars often fall into the "healthy food" section of the grocery store, they're often not as good for you as the packaging might imply. Despite promises of natural sugars, a high protein content, and plant-based ingredients, lots of these foods are actually chock full of natural sugars, grains, and sticky dried fruits, which, as we’ve already seen, aren't great for your teeth.
Try this instead: Instead of reaching for the ready-made granola, try making your own. You can use honey as a sweetener and include lots of soaked nuts and seeds to keep you full until lunch. Serve it with a dollop of probiotic-rich yogurt to give your oral microbiome an even bigger boost.
If you need a mid-afternoon snack, opt for a protein bar that's made with all natural, truly healthy ingredients, ideally with some healthy extras, like prebiotic fiber. Or ditch the protein bar entirely and reach for a handful of phosphorus-rich pumpkin seeds (phosphorus is a key ingredient for building strong enamel), or a few cubes of high-quality aged, hard cheese, which contains vitamin K2—essential for oral health.8
While alcohol can be an enjoyable addition to your days, it's not ideal for your teeth. Apart from the fact that alcohol is highly acidic and full of sugar, it also has a diuretic effect on the body, which is why you wake up after a few drinks feeling like you’ve been chewing on sandpaper. Our mouths naturally produce saliva, which promotes a healthy bacterial balance by creating conditions that help beneficial bacteria thrive and also reduces plaque build-up, but alcohol consumption inhibits this saliva production.9
Worse still, excessive alcohol consumption often goes hand-in-hand with our other oral health offenders such as chips, sugary desserts, and lots of starchy, carb-heavy foods as you try to boost your energy levels the following day.
Try this instead: If you don’t want to avoid alcohol altogether, try to limit the damage by alternating alcoholic drinks with water to avoid dehydration and to wash the sugars from your teeth and swap the accompanying potato chips for olives. Say no to sugary cocktails and go for a glass of microbiome-boosting red wine instead!
9. Coffee and tea
It’s no surprise that if you want to keep your teeth sparkling white, coffee is not your best beverage option. It can be tempting to over-brush your teeth after consuming a cup of Joe in an attempt to avoid staining, but this can be counterproductive, as excessive brushing damages your gums, and micro-cuts in your gums can open the door for unwanted bacteria (and even tiny particles of food) to enter your bloodstream, causing issues throughout the rest of your body. What's more, much like alcohol, coffee and tea are diuretics, and can inhibit healthy saliva production.
Try this instead: Gradually reduce your coffee and tea consumption by replacing a few cups a day with green tea or herbal teas. If you’re still clinging to your caffeine, make sure you drink plenty of filtered water to keep your body hydrated and serve it without added sugar, without caramel syrups, and definitely without a muffin on the side!
Okay, it’s just water, right? No sugar, no acid, no dehydration to worry about…or so you'd think. Ice itself is fine, until you start crunching it. Tooth enamel is tough stuff, but it can be hard to completely avoid the sugars and acids that weaken it. A crunchy ice cube could just be the last straw for your teeth, with idle ice chewing potentially leading to painful, problematic cracks.
Try this instead: Stick to enjoying your ice as part of a refreshing drink and you’ll be just fine.
Other Ways to Support Optimal Oral Health
Given our modern society and diet, it's nearly impossible to avoid all the less-than-ideal foods at all times. Life is for living, and you want to enjoy a slice of cake or a glass of wine now and again! Apart from limiting the foods and drinks in the top ten, there are several ways you can support your oral health at a microbial level and maintain a strong, healthful smile.
First, give your teeth a break by limiting snacks, and making sure that those you do eat are as tooth-friendly as possible. (This goes for kiddos, too! Do your best to provide them with healthy snacks that will keep their enamel strong for years to come.) Second, pay attention to your saliva production, making sure that you give your body the tools it needs to keep your mouth well lubricated. Also, be sure to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and to flush away the sugars that the bad bacteria thrive on.
Consider adding more high quality, grass-fed butter to your diet. While it might sound like we’re coming out of left field with this one, studies show that most people don’t get enough vitamin K2, which plays an integral role in keeping your teeth and gums healthy. (Among other things, it helps your body make the best use of the vitamins and minerals needed to rebuild enamel.) And one of the very best sources of this critical nutrient? High vitamin, grass-fed butter.
Finally, supercharge your oral health efforts with premium probiotic support from the Hyperbiotics Oral Wellness Starter Pack. It contains both our natural Activated Charcoal Probiotic Toothpaste to clean and whiten without destroying your bacterial populations, as well as PRO-Dental, which is made with four targeted strains to support oral health—including bacteria that can help get to the root of bad breath and dissolve the sticky biofilm on your teeth so unwanted bacteria have nowhere to camp out and the good guys have plenty of room to grow.10
With a little probiotic care, a few easy substitutions emphasizing foods for healthy teeth, and a solid understanding of what you need to maintain your oral health, you’ll have that smile on its way to being camera-ready in no time!
1.Turnbaugh P.J., Ridaura, V.K., Faith, J.J., Rey, F.E. . . . Gordon, J.I. (2009) The Effect of Diet on the Human Gut Microbiome: A Metagenomic Analysis in Humanized Gnotobiotic Mice. Science Translational Medicine 1(6). doi: 10.1126/scitranslmed.3000322
2. Burt, B.A., Pai, S. (2001). Sugar Consumption and Caries Risk: a Systematic Review. Journal of Dental Education, 65(10), 1017-1023.
3. Suez, J., Korem, T., Zeevi, D., Zilberman-Schapira, G., Thaiss, C. A., Maza, O., . . . Elinav, E. (2014). Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota. Nature, 514(7521), 181-186.
4. Finley, J. (2014, March). Impact of the Microbiome on Cocoa Polyphenolic Compounds. Findings presented at the 247th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, Dallas, TX.
5. I. Johansson, I. Holgerson, P.L., Kressin, N.R., Nunn, M.E., Tanner, A.C. (2010) Snacking Habits and Caries in Young Children. Caries Research, 44, 421–430. doi: 10.1159/000318569
6. Grando, L.J., Tames, D.R., Cardoso, A.C., Gabilan, N.H. (1996). In vitro Study of Enamel Erosion Caused by Soft Drinks and Lemon Juice in Deciduous Teeth Analysed by Stereomicroscopy and Scanning Electron Microscopy. Caries Research, 30(5). doi:10.1159/000262345
7. Mellanby, M., & Pattison, C. L. (1932). Remarks on The Influence of a Cereal-Free Diet Rich in Vitamin D and Calcium on Dental Caries in Children. The British Medical Journal, 1(3715), 507-510.
8. Rheaume-Bleue, K. (2013). Vitamin K2 And The Calcium Paradox: How a Little-Known Vitamin Could Save Your Life. New York: Harper Collins.
9. Enberg, N., Hannu Alho, H., Loimaranta, V., Lenander-Lumikari, M. (2001). Saliva Flow Rate, Amylase Activity, and Protein and Electrolyte Concentrations in Saliva After Acute Alcohol Consumption. Oral Surgery, Oral Medicine, Oral Pathology, Oral Radiology, 92(3), 292–298. doi: 10.1067/moe.2001.116814
10. Pierro, F. D., Zanvit, A., Nobili, P., Risso, P., & Fornaini, C. (2015). Cariogram Outcome After 90 days of Oral Treatment with Streptococcus salivarius M18 in Children at High Risk for Dental Caries: Results of a Randomized, Controlled Study. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dentistry, 107-113.
Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.