The 'tooth' on the best, worst foods for your teeth

Barbara Quinn / The Monterey County Herald /

Back in the day, I remember my mom marvel at the fact that my grandmother — almost 90 at the time — still had all her own teeth.

Times have changed somewhat. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 1 of every 4 adults older than 65 has no natural teeth. Which makes it a drag to eat corn-on-the-cob on the Fourth of July.

Why is nutrition important for our teeth? Because nutrients maintain strong teeth and strong teeth maintain our ability to get nutrients. Here's the latest on this topic from a recent position paper by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Bacteria that live in our mouth love sugar. When they feed on “fermentable carbohydrates,” they produce acids that destroy the protective mineral coating of tooth enamel. And they produce enzymes that attack proteins in the teeth. Result: weak, decayed teeth. Yuck. Fermentable carbs include beverages sweetened with sugar including soda, fruit drinks, energy drinks and sweet tea. That dreamy looking Venti (20-ounce) Iced Caramel Macchiato espresso drink at Starbucks has the potential to bathe my teeth in 9 teaspoons of sugar.

Other fermentable carbs include any sticky sweet foods such as raisins and dried fruit, honey and molasses. And let's not forget the candies and cookies.

Here's the good news: Some foods and food ingredients can actually protect our teeth from decay. Chew on these:

• Sugar-free chewing gum. Chewing stimulates saliva that bathes teeth with antibacterial agents that neutralize bad acids in your mouth. And the sweeteners used in sugar-free candies and mints-such as xylitol and mannitol-do not feed mouth bacteria.

• Fresh fruits and vegetables. Vitamin C in these foods is used to make collagen — a vital protein for healthy gums. And chewing these fibrous foods keep gums healthy and produces protective saliva.

• Protein foods such as meat, eggs, cheese, fish, beans and legumes strengthen teeth and gums. Proteins also arm saliva with its antibacterial properties.

Whole-grain, low-sugar breads and cereals provide a host of nutrients that enhance our immune response to fight off pesky bacteria.

The formula to grow old with all your teeth? Chew, chew, chew your food to stimulate saliva. Don't let sugar hang out too often with the bacteria in your mouth. Brush your teeth after you eat with a fluoride-containing toothpaste. And if you can't brush right away, chew a piece of sugar-free gum.

That oughta keep those teeth in their place.

— Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula.