Sugar-free treats may not be the secret to a cavity-free Halloween after all. That's because a new study in the British Dental Journal reports that some sugarless gums and candies contain extra ingredients that eat away at tooth enamel, contributing to cavities.
Here's the skinny: Acidic foods and drinks—think citrus fruits and soda—change the pH level in your mouth. Once the environment there becomes too acidic, calcium leaches from your molars and incisors, weakening your teeth. This process is called dental erosion, and it's irreversible, says John C. Comisi, D.D.S., M.A.G.D., spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry.
While previous research has shown that some artificial sweeteners neutralize and prevent dental erosion, the new study points out that manufacturers add potentially harmful acidic flavors and preservatives back into some sugar-free foods and beverages.
Most of the main offenders are fruit-flavored or sour, says study author Sok-Ja Janket, D.M.D., M.P.H., a dentistry professor at Boston University. Armed with that knowledge, use these other teeth tips to protect your pearly whites.
- If you're going sugar-free, pick tastes like mint and butterscotch instead of fruity flavors. And choose chews instead of slow-melting lollipops. The longer that acids are in contact with your teeth, the worse the erosion, says Janket.
- Swish with water for 15 to 20 seconds after eating a fruit candy (or other acidic food.) You'll stop the acid attack and stimulate the production of saliva, nature's original neutralizer. You don't even need mouthwash—in fact, brands that contain alcohol may dry your mouth instead, Comisi says.
- Most American sugar-free gum is sweetened with the sugar alcohol sorbitol because it's cheap. But studies show xylitol is superior at fighting cavities. Chew a stick with xylitol after each meal for maximum benefit, recommends Comisi.