One of the biggest factors which is essential to oral health, is what we eat. An unhealthy diet, and the amount of each category of food that a person eats, has a huge impact on the likelihood of decay. A balanced diet as illustrated by the eatwell plate (below) consists of starchy food (pasta, rice and bread); fruit and vegetables; milk and dairy products; fish, meat and other proteins; with only a small portion of food that is high in fat and sugar. Many foods that contain added sugars also contain large numbers of calories, but often have few other nutrients. Eating these foods often can contribute to a person becoming overweight as well as causing decay. To eat a healthy, balanced diet, we should eat these types of foods only occasionally, and get the majority of our calories from other kinds of foods such as starchy foods and fruits and vegetables.
Sugary foods and drinks can also cause tooth decay, especially if eaten between meals. The longer the sugary food is in contact with the teeth, and the more frequently it is eaten, the more damage it can cause.
For this reason, restricting sweet or acidic food and drink to mealtimes only, while offering safe snacks in between mealtimes, can help prevent decay. Snacks such as fresh fruit, vegetable sticks, small quantities of cheese, wholegrain breadsticks or bread and suitable sandwiches are good alternatives for snacks. Similarly, water or milk with no flavourings should be consumed between meals. This ensures that there isn’t exposure to sugar and therefore acid too frequently.
However, the sugars that are added to a wide range of foods, such as sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, and some fizzy drinks and juice drinks are harmful and their consumption should be reduced.
The sugars found naturally in whole fruit are less likely to cause tooth decay, because the sugars are contained within the structure of the fruit. But when fruit is juiced or blended, the sugars are released. Once released, these sugars can damage teeth, especially if fruit juice is drunk frequently. Fruit juice is still a healthy choice, and counts as one of the recommended five daily portions of fruit and vegetables. But it is best to drink fruit juice at mealtimes in order to minimise damage to teeth.
These tips can help cut down on sugar intake.
- Instead of sugary fizzy drinks and juice drinks, restrict unsweetened fruit juice to mealtimes (remember to dilute these for children, to further reduce the sugar) and have water in-between meals.
- Swap cakes or biscuits for a healthy snack like vegetable sticks.
- If taking sugar in hot drinks, or adding sugar to breakfast cereal, gradually reduce the amount until it can be cut out altogether.
- Rather than spreading jam, marmalade, syrup, treacle or honey on toast, try a low-fat spread, sliced banana or low-fat cream cheese instead.
- Check nutrition labels to help pick the foods with less added sugar, or go for the low-sugar version.
- Try halving the sugar used in recipes.
- Choose wholegrain breakfast cereals, but not those coated with sugar or honey.
Nutrition labels and sugars
Nutrition labels often tell how much sugar a food contains. Comparing labels can help with choosing foods that are lower in sugar.
Look for the ‘Carbohydrates (of which sugars)’ figure in the nutrition label.
The sugars figure in the nutrition label is the total amount of sugars in the food. It includes sugars from fruit and milk, as well as the sugars that have been added. A food containing lots of fruit or milk will be a healthier choice than one that contains lots of added sugars, even if the two products contain the same total amount of sugars. Checking the ingredients list (see below) will show whether the food contains lots of added sugars.
Labels on the front of packaging
There are labels containing nutritional information on the front of some food packaging. This includes traffic light labelling, and displays the types of food as a proportion of the recommended daily amount or the Reference Intake. The amount of sugar is expressed as a proportion of the reference intake for sugar which, in this case, is low. Traffic light labelling shows at a glance if the food is high, medium or low in sugars.
The ingredients list is arranged in order of the weight of ingredients contained. Added sugars must be included so if sugar is near the top of the list, then the food is likely to be high in added sugars.
Watch out for other words that are used to describe added sugars, such as sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, hydrolysed starch and invert sugar, corn syrup and honey.
“Guide to creating a front of pack (FoP) nutrition label for pre-packed products sold through retail outlets” found at http://www.food.gov.uk/multimedia/pdfs/pdf-ni/fop-guidance.pdf