You have undoubtedly heard that eating candy can lead to cavities, but did you know that some kinds of candy are more likely to lead to tooth decay than others? At Hurst Pediatric Dentistry, we understand that candy is part of the fun of Halloween. Fortunately, you and your child can reduce the risk of candy-related tooth decay by avoiding the types of candy that are most likely to lead to cavities and by following the below tips when indulging in Halloween candy.
How Does Candy Cause Cavities in Children’s Teeth?
A candy’s potential for damaging your child’s teeth is not simply a factor of how much sugar it contains; numerous characteristics work together to make certain types of candy especially harmful to your child’s teeth. Understanding why certain candies harm your child’s teeth more than others requires some basic knowledge of how eating candy can lead to tooth decay.
If the thought of science makes you cringe, feel free to skip ahead to the next section for lists of the best and worst candies for your child’s teeth. However, we encourage you to take the time to read this section to learn a bit more about how candy can lead to cavities. Understanding the science behind cavities can help you make more informed, healthier decisions for you and your child. Besides, you might just discover that you find dental science as fascinating as we do!
Our mouths are filled with hundreds of different types of bacteria. Many of the bacteria are beneficial, but a few of them – the “cariogenic” bacteria – cause cavities. Cariogenic bacteria, like humans, consume food and produce waste. Unfortunately for those of us who love sweets and simple carbohydrates, the preferred food source of cavity-causing bacteria is sugar.
When you consume sugary candies (or any other type of fermentable carbohydrates), cariogenic bacteria feed on the sugars inside your mouth and use them to grow and multiply. After digesting the sugars, these bacteria produce a highly acidic waste product.
When your teeth are exposed to a highly acidic environment, they lose minerals in a process known as “demineralization.” Fortunately, your body has an excellent defense mechanism: saliva. Saliva naturally helps your teeth to regain lost minerals and to reverse the damage caused by demineralization. But this “remineralization” process takes time, and it can only take place when the tooth’s environment is no longer acidic.
When your teeth are exposed to frequent “acid attacks,” your teeth can lose minerals faster than your body can replace them, leading to tooth decay. Eventually, the demineralization process can damage your teeth so badly that you end up with permanent damage in the form of a cavity (or worse).
How Sugar Affects Your Child’s Teeth: Putting It All Together
When your child eats sugary candies, cariogenic bacteria feed off those sugars and create an acidic environment in your child’s mouth. That acidic environment leads to tooth decay.
Every second that your child spends with sugary candies inside his or her mouth provides an opportunity for cariogenic bacteria to eat, multiply and produce acid waste. This means that, from a dental health perspective, sucking on a sugary candy for five minutes is worse than quickly chewing and swallowing a piece of candy.
What’s the Worst Candy for Your Child’s Teeth?
Now that you understand how candy can lead to tooth decay, you will not be surprised to learn that the worst candies for your child’s teeth are the ones that linger in the mouth for long periods of time, as well as the ones that are highly acidic. We recommend avoiding the following types of candies:
Gummies, caramels, toffee, taffy, fruit chews, and other sticky sweets cling to the teeth and can be difficult to remove with a toothbrush. When pieces of candy stick to the teeth instead of being swallowed immediately, it gives cariogenic bacteria additional time to consume the sugars in them and produce harmful acid waste products, increasing the chances that your child will get a cavity.
Children often suck on hard candies for an extended period of time, giving cavity-causing bacteria ample time to feed and increasing the likelihood of tooth decay.
Sour candies spell double trouble for your child’s teeth because they are typically both sugary and highly acidic. The sugars in these candies provide a food source for harmful bacteria, while the acid in the candies creates an acidic environment in your child’s mouth that leads to demineralization in the same way that the acids produced by cariogenic bacteria do.
What’s the Best Candy for Your Child’s Teeth?
The good news for excited trick-or-treaters (and their parents) is that not all candies are quite so terrible for your child’s teeth. Here are our recommendations for the least harmful types of candies:
Did you know that chewing sugarless gum has been shown to help prevent tooth decay? Chewing gum increases saliva flow, which is beneficial for several reasons. Saliva is your child’s natural tooth cleaner. It washes away sugary food particles, thereby reducing the amount of time cariogenic bacteria get to spend consuming them. Saliva also neutralizes any harmful acids in your child’s mouth, and it helps your child’s teeth regain the minerals those acids caused them to lose.
Look for sugar-free gum with the ADA Seal of Acceptance, which has been shown to meet the American Dental Association’s criteria for safety and efficacy.
Let’s face it – your child will probably be disappointed if you tell him or her that the only Halloween candy you’re allowing this year is sugar-free gum. As far as sugary candies go, chocolate is probably the best option for your child’s teeth. First, chocolate is much easier to clean off your child’s teeth than other candies. Second, the cacao beans used to make chocolate contain a substance called theobromine. Some studies have found that theobromine has antibacterial properties, helps reduce plaque, and even helps with the “remineralization” of teeth (reversing the damage caused by demineralization).
Although conventional wisdom is that dark chocolate is healthier and contains less sugar than milk chocolate, we recommend studying ingredient labels carefully. Brands vary greatly in terms of the percentage of cocoa solids and sugar they use. Lower quality chocolates are often loaded with sugar and may contain vegetable oils, artificial flavorings, and other less expensive ingredients in place of higher cacao levels. In fact, numerous premium chocolatiers make milk chocolate bars that contain less sugar per ounce than – and just as many cocoa solids as – some of the most popular “dark” chocolate bars on the market. This isn’t to say that you have to shell out top dollar for your child’s Halloween candy, but you should keep in mind that not all chocolate is created equal when determining which (and how much) chocolate to give your child. Look at ingredient labels rather than focusing on whether a manufacturer has chosen to label its chocolate as “dark” or “milk.” A higher percentage of cacao means more theobromine, and a lower percentage of sugar means less food for the cariogenic bacteria in your child’s mouth.
If your child has a sweet spot for hard candies, consider trying Xylitol lollipops rather than traditional ones. Xylitol is a sugar substitute that is not easily metabolized by cariogenic bacteria, meaning that its consumption does not result in your child’s mouth becoming highly acidic. In fact, the American Association of Pediatric Dentistry supports the use of xylitol as a non-cavity-causing sugar substitute.
Note that, while we do not recommend allowing your child to binge on any type of candy, we recommend being especially careful about the amount of xylitol candies your child consumes in a day, as xylitol may cause temporary gastrointestinal issues when consumed in large doses. Additionally, if you are a pet owner, be aware that xylitol is highly toxic to dogs.
How Do You Reduce the Risk of Cavities in Children from Halloween Candy?
Minimize the frequency of snacking.
From a dental health perspective, it is better to allow your child to eat several pieces of Halloween candy immediately after a meal than to allow your child to graze on those pieces of candy throughout the day.
Remember that, each time your child eats sugary candy, cariogenic bacteria in your child’s mouth will begin producing harmful acid. It takes time for your child’s saliva to neutralize that acid so that it can begin the reparative remineralization process.
Imagine what would happen if, each time your child’s body finally neutralized the harmful acid, your child placed another piece of candy in his or her mouth. Your child would be giving the cariogenic bacteria repeated opportunities to damage his or her teeth, and would be robbing his or her body of its opportunities to reverse that damage.
In contrast, if you limit your child’s candy consumption to a short time period immediately after meals, your child’s saliva will have more time to work towards neutralizing the acid and beginning the reparative process. Furthermore, because your child’s saliva production naturally increases when he or she eats meals, consuming candy immediately after a meal can be less harmful than consuming it at other points during the day.
Brush and floss your child’s teeth.
Make sure your child brushes and flosses regularly, providing assistance until you are comfortable that your child can brush and floss thoroughly and properly without it. Regular brushing and flossing are essential for removing candy (and other food particles) from the teeth. The less time those food particles spend in your child’s mouth, the less food they provide for cariogenic bacteria.
Take your child to a pediatric dentist for professional cleanings on a regular basis.
Even if your child practices excellent oral hygiene, it can be difficult to remove all of the bacteria that naturally builds up on the surfaces of the teeth. That’s why professional dental cleanings are so important – your child’s pediatric dentist can help remove hard-to-clean bacteria build-up on your child’s teeth and can help spot and treat any decay early.
Happy Halloween from Hurst Pediatric Dentistry!
Dr. Lin and the team at Hurst Pediatric Dentistry hope you and your children have a wonderful Halloween. Enjoy your candy (in moderation), but don’t forget to brush afterwards! If your child hasn’t had a dental cleaning recently, make sure to schedule an appointment so that we can help your child remove any remnants of those Halloween treats! You can call our office at (817) 510-6400 to book an appointment.
Hurst Pediatric Dentistry is located in Hurst, Texas, and provides pediatric dental cleanings and other preventative dental care to children from the Dallas/Fort Worth area.