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Snack attack: How frequent snacking can cause cavities


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27th Special Operations Aerospace Medicine Squadron

In today’s fast-paced, busy lifestyle, we tend to rely on energy drinks or candy to get us through the day. What most people don’t know is that not only what you eat, but how often you eat will determine if you get cavities. Americans are consuming foods and drinks high in sugar more often and in larger portions than ever before. In 2000, Americans drank more than 53 gallons of soft drinks per person. One out of every four beverages consumed in America today is a soft drink. A steady diet of sugary foods and drinks can ruin teeth, especially among those who snack throughout the day.

When it comes to cavities, bacteria are public enemy number No. 1. Our mouths are full of bacteria which settle on our teeth in plaque, a sticky matrix of proteins, saliva and food debris. Here bacteria devour the sugar from snacks and produce acid, which attacks the teeth for 20 minutes or more. It is this acid which eats into the tooth enamel, creating cavities. Normally, acid eating into tooth enamel is not painful. However, if left untreated, acid eats a hole through the enamel into the underlying dentin and pulp layers of the tooth which can result in pain.

The frequency of your snacks is crucial to preventing cavities. The acid produced by bacteria is neutralized and cleared from the mouth by saliva. After the acid is neutralized, minerals in saliva begin to repair areas of enamel damaged by the acid. Larger intervals between meals provide more opportunity for the acid to be neutralized and more time for the acid damage to be repaired. Frequent snacks, however, provide for a constant acid attack and provide less time for tooth repair. This explains why snacks eaten with a meal are better for teeth than snacks eaten between meals. A candy bar eaten with a meal, for example, is less likely to contribute to cavity formation than a candy bar eaten as a snack between meals. Likewise, sipping on sugar-containing liquids throughout the day is much more detrimental than drinking sugar-containing liquids with a meal.

Not all snacks are bad; some can actually help prevent cavities. Cheeses such as Aged Cheddar, Swiss, Blue, Monterey Jack, Mozzarella, Brie, Gouda and American processed cheese have been shown to prevent plaque pH from dropping to a level conducive to cavity formation, even in the presence of sucrose. Milk is also considered a great snack. Its nutrients, including calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamin D and others, may offer protection against dental cavities. Try to use non-carbohydrate sweeteners (saccharin, cyclamate and aspartame) that are cariostatic, which means they do not contribute to tooth decay. These sweeteners not only increase saliva production, but they also decrease the amount of bacteria that causes cavities.

There are things you can do to beat tooth decay. Limit eating and drinking between meals. When snacking, give preference to nutritious foods. Be aware of the effects of frequent consumption of sugary beverages and non-nutritious snack foods. If you cannot brush immediately after a meal, follow meals and snacks with water to help wash food debris from teeth. Brush twice a day, floss or use an interdental cleaner once a day and have regular dental check-ups. For further information, visit the American Dental Association’s website,


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