Do we know enough about the damage that diet drinks are causing?

‘Guilt-free’ and ‘no added sugar’ soft drinks are all the rage, but are they causing more harm than good in regards to our teeth?

The excessive amount of sugar in fizzy drinks has been linked to obesity and diabetes. In an attempt to combat this, many consumers have switched to diet versions of their favourite drinks, believing that they are fine to drink as much as they want without having to worry about any health implications. Drinks labelled ‘no added sugar’ and ‘diet’ create the illusion that they are a healthy option, when in reality these drinks can be just as unhealthy as their sugar-loaded counterparts.

Busting the ‘no added sugar’ myth

If a soft drink is labelled ‘no added sugar’ people may believe that it’s sugar-free, when in reality it could mean that no additional sugar has been added to the product (this will vary from product to product). This lack of awareness is causing a crisis for dentists, having to treat patients who are consuming these type of drinks completely unaware of the consequences.

It’s a common misconception that we only need to worry about man-made sugars. While natural sugars are not necessarily bad for you, too much of any kind of sugar will cause damage to your teeth. Unfortunately, one quick glance around the supermarket can lead people to believe that the orange juice they pick up is a consequence-free healthy drink. Fruit juices can be packed full of natural sugars, listed as fructose, glucose, maltose and sucrose, or even as carbohydrates. To put it into perspective, some leading ‘healthy’ orange juice brands can contain 51g of sugar, which is equal to 13 biscuits. Even products that are marketed as water with a hint of flavour can contain around 20g of sugar.

There is no doubt about it, sugar damages teeth. Plenty of evidence has demonstrated that consuming large quantities of soft drinks and fruit juices will lead to tooth erosion and decay. In recent years, as people have been trying to integrate more portions of fruit and vegetables into their diets, drinking fruit juice seems like a simple way to take in more vitamins. Leading drink brands are eager to highlight this fact, by sticking ‘one of your 5-a-day’ labels on their products at every available opportunity.

An expert speaks

Speaking in May 2015, Chief Executive of the British Dental Health Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter, commented: “While fruit juices can be a good way to get people to consume more fruit, the high concentration of sugar and acids means that they can do real damage to the teeth if regularly consumed throughout the day.

“Water and milk are the best choices by far, not only for the good of our oral health but our overall health too. Remember, it is how often we have sugary foods and drinks that causes the problem so it is important that we try and reduce the frequency of consumption.”

His comments were made in reference to a new study published in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry, which showed that 79% of adults who took part in the research were found to have some evidence of tooth decay. The researchers concluded that those who displayed signs of moderate or severe decay were more likely to consume fruit juices and soft drinks on a regular basis.

Beware of acid

In addition to sugar, the high levels of acid that are found in fizzy drinks, diet drinks and fruit juices can weaken the tooth enamel overtime and cause the teeth to erode and decay.

Acid floods into the mouth every time you take a sip of the drink, these acid attacks can last around 20 minutes and each time you drink you begin the process all over again. Therefore drinking a bottle of fruit juice over the course of a morning could subject your teeth to hours of acid attacks. Regardless of whether the drink is diet/healthy or not, the acid level and the damage that occurs will be the same as in most soda drinks.

How can we prevent this?

Of course, the easiest way to prevent tooth decay is to cut down on fizzy drinks and fruit juices altogether, whether they are diet or not. However, we understand that it may be a long time before consumers boycott their favourite drinks.

Tooth decay could be prevented,  regular checkups and advice can stop the problem from going any further. In many cases, patients also need to be made more aware of the tactics that brands employ to portray their products as healthier choices and cut down on their consumption.

Advise your patients that if they do choose to consume fruit juices and fizzy drinks, then they should try to drink through a straw to eliminate unnecessary contact with their teeth. They could also rinse their mouth out with still water once they’ve finished to wash away the acid and continue to brush their teeth with fluoride toothpaste at least twice a day to reduce damage and protect their tooth enamel.