Ah the holidays! Time to cozy up with a hot drink, gather around a table groaning with goodies, package up your favorite cookies for neighbors and friends, and … visit the dentist? If an emergency trip to your local family dentist isn’t on your holiday calendar, you might rethink some of your favorite holiday treats. With the season lasting six weeks or more, overindulging in a few choice holiday delights can build up to cavities, staining, or cracked teeth if you aren’t careful. Below we outline the holiday treats to be wary of and why, as well as ways to enjoy the festivities while protecting your oral health.

How Sugar Affects Your Teeth

Have you ever noticed a sticky or filmy sensation in your mouth when you eat too much sugar? That’s plaque. Plaque forms when bacteria build up on your teeth. Normally plaque gets washed away by saliva, but an environment with too much sugar might create more plaque than your salvia can handle. The bacteria in plaque feed on sugar, turning it into acids. The acids eat away at tooth enamel, allowing bacteria to cause infections in the cervices of the teeth, i.e. form cavities.

So, sugar itself doesn’t rot your teeth, but it does cause a bad environment for your oral health if you eat too much of it, because:

  • Sugar allows bacteria to thrive in the mouth.
  • Bacteria feed on sugar to create acid, which damages tooth enamel.
  • Sugar dehydrates you, lessening your supply of saliva, your first line of defense against both bacteria and acid.

The Worst Holiday Treats for Your Teeth

What you’re really trying to avoid if you want to protect your teeth this holiday season isn’t just sugar. It’s the combination of sugar and acid, or some other factor that can amplify sugar’s affect or otherwise degrade your tooth enamel. With that in mind, we’ve identified the 6 worst holiday treats for your teeth and outlined their potential dangers.

  1. Peppermint Sticks: Candy canes, peppermints, and peppermint sticks are a ubiquitous symbol of the holidays, perfectly designed to damage your teeth. They’re entirely sugar (with just a tiny bit of peppermint oil). And not just sugar, but crystallized, slow- melting sugar. Biting into one might crack a filling or weak tooth , but sucking one slowly saturates your mouth with sugar-loving bacteria that can lead to tooth decay. We called out peppermints specifically because they are so common from Thanksgiving through the New Year, but all hard candies sit at the top of the no-go list for holiday treats.
  2. Toffee and Brittle: Hard, chewy, and perfectly designed to get stuck in your teeth is a delicious and destructive combination. When you bite into these hard confections, you sometimes risk chipping a tooth or dislodging a filling, especially if they contain nuts. When the toffee then sticks between teeth or in tooth crevices—which it invariably does—you end up with a perfect nest for bacteria, filled with its favorite food, sugar.
  3. Caramel Corn: Caramel corn lands on the worst holiday treat list for the same reason as toffee: the combination of sugar and hardness. But popcorn has a unique capacity to get stuck between teeth as well. When was the last time you had a bowl of popcorn and didn’t need to floss afterwards? Adding on caramel makes popcorn even more likely to get stuck, saturating your teeth and gums in sugar while in residence between them.
  4. Candied Nuts: Nuts from the store are rarely the sole cause of a cracked tooth, but during the holidays many people like to shell and bake their own nuts. A stray shell or under-roasted nut can pose a risk to delicate teeth. Candied nuts are also little better than hard candies when it comes to sugar content, though thankfully they don’t linger as long in your mouth.
  5. Sweet Hot Drinks: If hard=dangerous, you might think that going the liquid route would be easier on your teeth. Unfortunately, since liquids can reach every tiny surface in your mouth (between teeth, in tooth grooves, and around the entire body of each tooth) drinking a hot cocoa or cider makes your entire mouth vulnerable to bacteria. In addition, the heat of hot beverages can weaken tooth enamel or cause micro-cracks that create sensitivity, allow staining, and increase your risk of tooth decay.
  6. Wine: Both red and white wines have high acid content, which again leads to tooth enamel erosion. Wine also dehydrates you, decreasing your flow of saliva over time, and breaking down your natural defenses against acid. On top of all that, the tannins in red wine have been known to stain teeth.

The Best Holiday Treats for Your Teeth

So, what can you eat on that holiday buffet table? Plenty. You can even indulge in sugary delights if you do it in moderation. You’ll note that in all the foods and beverages we named above, there was a combination of factors that created heightened risk to oral health. But, if you just don’t want to have to think through what might or might not be safe for your oral health, we’ve outlined your 3 best holiday treats for your teeth.

Cheese: Cheese is a surprisingly good option for your oral health. It’s high in phosphate and calcium, which supports tooth and bone health overall, but it also helps raise your mouth’s pH level (reducing acidity). Just be careful about the number of starchy crackers you put your cheese on.

Dark Chocolate: Research shows that raw cocoa has natural antibacterial action that can help fight cavities, plaque, and tooth decay. There’s also an organic compound in chocolate called theobromine that is better than fluoride at hardening tooth enamel. However, the sugar content in most chocolate candies negates any oral health benefits. Opting for the darkest chocolate you can palate—ideally with less than 6 to 8 grams of sugar per serving—is the best way to enjoy this treat while saving your teeth.

Gingerbread: Not all holiday favorites are a bad idea! Gingerbread and gingersnaps typically pack a flavorful punch with a lot less sugar than other seasonal cookies or candies. Gingersnaps are delightfully crispy without being too hard and gingerbread provides a soft option without being so sticky or chewy that it gets stuck in your teeth.

How to Protect Oral Health While Enjoying Holiday Treats

If it just isn’t the holidays without a candy cane or cup of hot chocolate, that’s okay. There are ways to enjoy even the worst holiday treats for your teeth while minimizing the risks to oral health. Here are our three tips:

Don’t snack: Treating your treats as dessert instead of snacks provides two key health benefits. 1) You’ll likely eat less if you limit yourself to a constrained amount at a particular time. 2) Your mouth won’t be fighting constant acid build up. Saliva naturally increases when you eat, so if there’s any time your mouth can handle the additional sugar and acid build up, its right after a meal.

Drink Plenty of Water: The more hydrated you are, the more saliva you’ll have. If you know a holiday gathering is likely to include lots of sugar or alcohol, make sure you try to negate their dehydrating affects by drinking lots of water. Just the act of drinking will help protect your mouth too—it’s not as powerful as saliva, but water does wash away bacteria and acid.

Brush Your Teeth: Brushing after any meal, and especially before bed, is always the best protection you can offer your teeth. However, make sure you wait at least 30 minutes after consuming sugary or acidic treats before brushing. This prevents the risk of brushing residual acid into the teeth and causing greater erosion.

Family Dentistry at University General Dentists in Knoxville, TN

The holidays are meant to be enjoyed with family and friends, and what would a seasonal gathering be without the food and beverages we look forward to each year? Just choose wisely and indulge in moderation. Make sure you aren’t exposing your mouth to foods that increase acidity and create a cozy home for bacteria day after day. The last thing you want is a cavity or cracked tooth ruining the greater delights of the season.

If you do end up needing extra dental care around the holidays, University General Dentists is here to help. We provide family dentistry services to keep your loved ones’ smiles healthy and strong. We believe in caring, attentive, and respectful dental care, and we provide everything from routine checkups to extensive dental repairs with the latest state-of-the-art technology. Schedule an appointment at our UT Medical Center office at 865-305-9440 or at our West Knoxville office at 865-500-5700.

During the holiday season, the office will be closed starting at 12pm on 12/23/21 and we will return to the office on 1/3/2022 at 8am. Should there be an emergency, a doctor is on call. Call the Hospital Office at (865)305-9440, the prompts should direct you to the hospital operator who will notify the doctor on call.