The foods and drinks that pass by your lips can have a dramatic impact on your health, starting from the first moment they enter your mouth.
The effect that beverages have on your teeth depends on several things, but it’s primarily determined by overall acidity. Anything that measures 5.5 or less on the pH scale is considered acidic. Acidic foods and drinks soften tooth enamel, which makes teeth sensitive and vulnerable to damage, such as cavities. Drinks that are high in both acid and sugar have the potential to be doubly damaging.
When it comes to wine, red is better for dental health, but no variety is necessarily good for your teeth.
“White wine is more acidic than red and is therefore more efficient at destroying your enamel, leaving you more susceptible to discoloration and staining,” explains Dr. Angelika Shein, a New York-based dentist.
While there isn’t a lot of data on how beer affects your teeth, some evidence suggests that it could actually be beneficial.
“Some very early research has shown that hops, a common component of beer, may have some positive effects on oral health and cavity protection. But it’s too early to be sure,” explains Shein.
Vodka has a pH around 4, but in some cases can be as high as 8. Less expensive brands of vodka tend to have a lower pH, while premium vodkas tend to have a higher pH. With that in mind, many vodkas are definitely within the range of potential damage. Alcohol also has a drying effect. Saliva is one of the mouth’s natural defenses against damage, so anything over moderate consumption could be harmful.
Other liquors vary widely in terms of pH, but the drying effects are the same, and they’re further compounded because people (usually) sip their drinks slowly, which gives the alcohol more time to do its damage.
Water doesn’t really have a net impact on your teeth, says Shein. If anything, it’s helpful.
“In fact, staying well-hydrated increases salivary flow and the flow of protective minerals within the saliva that protect the teeth from decay,” she says.
It may not look harmful, but looks can be deceiving. According to one study, sparkling water tends to have a pH level of between 2.74 and 3.34. This gives it an even greater erosive potential than orange juice.
Coffee may be slightly acidic (around 5.0 on the pH scale), but there’s some evidence that your morning java could actually be good for your teeth.
One study found that drinking coffee without any additives could help prevent cavities from developing. So if you’re drinking to your dental health, enjoy your coffee, but skip the sweetener.
“Numerous components of milk, including proteins and minerals such as calcium, inhibit attachment and growth of many cavity-forming bacteria in your mouth,” says Shein.
“With a pH above 6.5, milk is a great choice to keep your teeth strong and healthy.”
It isn’t only bad for your waistline! Soft drinks can do a number on your teeth. And while common sense may tell you the sugar-free varieties aren’t so bad, science says otherwise.
“Studies have shown really no difference in enamel dissolution between diet and regular sodas within the same brand, so sugar content doesn’t really tell the whole story,” says Dr. Keith Arbeitman, Shein’s colleague. “Acidity and overall composition of the beverage seems to play an important part in breaking down enamel.”
Interestingly, Arbeitman says root beer scores “surprisingly well” compared to other sodas, “having virtually the same net effect on your teeth as tap water.”
“Most fruit juices are concentrated, and as a result expose you to a lot more acid than if you were to eat the fruit in its natural form,” says Arbeitman. “Orange juice with a pH of 3.5 isn’t as bad as cranberry, which has a pH of 2.6.”
He suggests diluting fruit juice with about 50 percent water to lessen the potential damage.
Juice drinks labeled as “fruit punch” are typically not actual juice. They are mostly sugar or high fructose corn syrup. As such, any redeeming qualities found in actual juice are absent in these imitators, and they have additional sugar to worsen dental effects. Also, it turns out the pH of most fruit drinks are under 3, making them a poor choice all around.
What does tea do to your teeth? It depends what kind of tea you’re talking about.
According to Dr. Shein, brewed teas typically have a pH above 5.5, which is out of the danger zone. Green tea may even have positive effects on gum health and decay prevention.
“However, when you start talking about iced teas, things change,” she says. “Most iced teas have very low pH, in the range of 2.5 to 3.5, and are loaded with sugar. Some popular brands of brewed iced teas have been shown to be much worse than most sodas.”
What you drink has a definite and immediate impact on your dental health. But there are ways to avoid some of the damage.
For drinks that are particularly acidic, consider using a straw. This will lessen contact time with your teeth.
And while it might seem contrary to common sense, you shouldn’t brush immediately after you drink anything that could damage your teeth. Brushing on enamel that’s already been softened by your beverage could end up doing more harm than good. Wait 30 minutes after drinking before brushing your teeth.