Lately, the word “sugar” seems to have been turned into a swear word. We’re attracted to brightly labeled food that is stamped with the words “sugar-free,” and we’re told if we avoid sugar, we’ll avoid cavities, too. So, we look for alternatives to satisfy our sweet tooth.

Enter artificial sweeteners. But can they really protect your teeth?

a selection of sugar substitutes sitting on a table in a restaurant

Tooth Erosion and Tooth Decay

First, it’s important to understand the distinction between tooth decay (cavities) and tooth erosion. Tooth decay is when oral bacteria create localized areas on your teeth that lose important minerals or even develop holes (cavities). Tooth decay is mostly influenced by the sugars that we eat. Bacteria turn these sugars into acid, which then attacks our teeth where the bacteria are–in the plaque that’s clinging to our teeth.

Tooth erosion, on the other hand, is when we bathe our teeth in acid from food, drink, or stomach acid. This causes a more general loss of tooth enamel. It can affect several teeth located in the affected zone, or it can even potentially affect all your teeth at the same time. In this study, researchers were looking at whether artificial sweeteners reduced the erosion potential of sweetened mineral waters.

What Are Artificial Sweeteners?

The sugar-free movement has become widespread. Non-nutritive, artificial sweeteners, like saccharin, which you can find in Sweet’N Low; and sucralose, which is in Splenda; give you the sweetness you crave while being low-calorie.

Artificial sweeteners are a great choice for the sweet-toothed among us who want a low-calorie alternative, or those on a ketogenic or paleo diet. Sugar-free choices are also critical for diabetics. Artificial sweeteners can also help with tooth decay. Because there’s no sugar for oral bacteria to consume, they can’t produce acid and they can’t reproduce. One sugar substitute, xylitol, has even been shown to reduce cavity risk because oral bacteria think it’s sugar, so they bring it in, but they can’t digest it, so they die.

Unfortunately, while artificial sweeteners are a low-calorie and diabetes-friendly alternative to sugar, artificial sweeteners aren’t an answer to tooth erosion.

Tooth Erosion and a Sugar-free Diet

Researchers out of the Medical University of Warsaw in Poland recently published a study on artificial sweeteners in flavored mineral water. The study examined whether artificial sweeteners were better for tooth enamel than traditional sugar. Unfortunately, the results aren’t good news if you’re looking for a sweetener that won’t damage your teeth.

In fact, the study suggests that artificial sweeteners have no benefit at all to your teeth when compared to sugar in terms of erosion. Next time you find yourself reaching for a diet soda or sweet flavored water, consider opting for a regular water for the sake of your oral health. The study comes on the heels of a similar 2015 study out of the University of Melbourne’s Oral Health Cooperative Research Centre, which reported that six of eight tested sports drinks caused dental enamel loss. So, when you’re packing for your child’s next practice or big game, weigh the pros and cons of the Gatorade – and its artificial sweetener alternative Gatorade Zero – over a plain water.

Other Drinks to Ditch for Strong Teeth

While sugar can damage enamel and encourage wear and tear to your teeth, these aren’t all you should watch out for.

Drinking lots of acidic drinks is a successful way to damage your teeth, too. If you enjoy acidic drinks like white wine or orange juice, wait a while before brushing your teeth to allow saliva to come back and wash away the leftover acidity.

Avoiding drying drinks like alcohol and anything with caffeine is also key. Your saliva is what keeps your mouth healthy, breaks down food particles and protects your enamel. By constantly drying out your mouth, you’re allowing for bacteria to grow which may lead to oral health issues in the future.

We Keep It Real

If you’re searching for ways to keep your teeth healthy and strong, switching to an artificial sweetener may not be your best bet. However, scheduling appointments with Drs. Ken and Marnie Collins in Spokane Valley twice each year, in addition to practicing excellent at-home dental techniques, can keep you on a healthy path.

To schedule an appointment with Collins Dentistry & Aesthetics for a regular check-up, for questions about the strength of your tooth enamel or for recommendations on how to strengthen your teeth, please call us today at (509) 927-2273 or send us an email.