When buying food for the house, if you’re not paying attention to the products and beverages you’re purchasing, a simple trip to the grocery store could lead to a pantry stocked with acidic foods that can be harmful for your teeth. As great as candies, sodas, and citric fruits taste, they can actually end up doing your mouth more harm than good. In this article, we’re going to explore the damaging effects acids have on enamel and how to protect the dental health of your whole family with a few simple steps.

What is Enamel and How Does Acid Affect It?

Enamel is the outermost protective shell that covers your teeth and it’s the hardest most highly mineralized substance in the body (even more so than bones!). The role that enamel plays in the mouth is to protect the inner layers of teeth from damaging effects caused by acids and plaque. As an added protective measure to prevent enamel from becoming damaged, dentists also apply sealant around the chewing surfaces, although it doesn’t protect areas of the tooth that sealant won’t reach, allowing sodas and sticky candies to cause decay.

When left on the teeth, acids can cause erosion which is irreversible damage to the tooth’s structure linked to the chemical processes caused by sugars and bacteria. This happens when acidic substances stick to the teeth and react with bacteria in the mouth to form lactic acid. Unlike most parts of the human body, enamel doesn’t contain living cells, so it’s unable to regenerate.

What determines the level of damage that acidic foods cause to your teeth is the pH level of the foods and beverages you consume, as well as how long your mouth is exposed to them. While water is considered neutral with a pH of 7.0, the loss of tooth enamel begins at a pH level of 4.0. Many popular candies come in well under this threshold, and some sour candies have even been found to have a pH level close to that of battery acid (1.0), capable of causing burns to the gums and cheeks.

Top Acidic Foods That Damage Enamel

When you actually begin to look out for foods and beverages that are high in acid, you’ll quickly realize just how many grocery store products can contribute to enamel damage.

The top culprits are fruity and sour candies, often times being loaded with high levels of acid and sugars to make them taste better. Sodas are also top contenders, with teens today drinking on average three times more than 20 years ago, only made worse by the easy access to these products in middle and high schools.

In addition to the obvious products, citric fruits like lemons, grapefruits, mangos, oranges, apples, and limes contain damaging acids as well. While they offer an abundance of vitamins and minerals that are essential for the body, regularly consuming these fruits will expose your teeth to high levels of acid that can contribute to erosion.

Lastly, you also have to be on the lookout for more deceiving products like gummy vitamins and products made with “100% fruit juice”. Though they can be packaged to appear “healthy”, the sugars and acids in these products are the same as those present in candies and sodas.

Signs of Dental Erosion

When there’s a prolonged history of poor dental care and a high intake of acidic foods, dental erosion can occur and eventually lead to tooth decay. Erosion begins when sugar converts into harmful acids, causing exposed teeth to experience “acid attacks” that last an average of 20 minutes. These attacks can actually last longer when consuming sticky or powdered candies, and when continuously drinking soda, leading to constant exposure and increased damage.

One of the first and most prominent signs of dental erosion is tooth sensitivity. This typically becomes noticeable when consuming cold, hot, or sweet food and beverages which then agitate the exposed areas of your teeth where the enamel has eroded. Though it most commonly happens around the molars, tooth sensitivity can happen anywhere in the mouth.

Discoloration and tooth transparency are also two common signs of dental erosion. While enamel plays only a small role in tooth color due to its generally opaque appearance, when it has become eroded, teeth can begin to appear slightly yellow. At the same time, transparency, especially around the edges of the tooth that make contact with food, is another sign that dental erosion has begun destroying enamel.

When dental erosion is left unchecked, it can eventually lead to tooth decay and even cavities. This occurs when the enamel has completely eroded and leaves the inner layers of the tooth exposed to the damaging effects of acids and plaque. Tooth decay can actually tunnel a hole through the layers of the tooth, creating what’s known as a cavity that requires dental intervention in order to help prevent worse dental problems from happening.

How to Protect Your Enamel

As overwhelming as everything we just covered may sound, the good news is, enamel and tooth erosion is fairly easy to prevent with a few good dental hygiene practices.

The first and easiest step to take is reducing or eliminating the consumption of acidic foods like candies, sodas, and certain fruits. If you do choose to consume these kinds of foods, avoid sticky candies or those that you suck on (or drink) for prolonged periods of time and be sure to rinse your mouth with water or milk to neutralize the acids immediately after.

While it’s almost impossible to completely avoid acidic foods altogether, another healthy practice that you can implement is brushing your teeth one hour after consuming acidic foods or beverages. It’s actually been shown that brushing your teeth sooner can increase the harmful effects of acids.

Finally, if you’re already experiencing symptoms of enamel loss and dental erosion, it’s not too late. Working with your dentist to reduce sensitivity and minimize future damage can help to preserve what’s left of your enamel and instill lifelong good dental hygiene practices.