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The worst (and best) sweets for your teeth

By Dr. Carolyn Taggart-Burns for Charge Up For Good Health
 

When trick-or-treaters ring my doorbell on Halloween, I toss a toothbrush in their bag. But make no mistake — our neighborhood might as well be Candy Land. My kids got a scary amount of sweets last year, and they only went to a couple of houses. And because they were both too young to eat much of their loot, guess who was tempted by it? Yep, hubby (who has a major sweet tooth) and me, the dentist.

Luckily, trick-or-treating comes only once a year. But here’s what you should know about which sweets are the worst — and best — for your teeth before you let your kids go candy-crazy on those special (and not-so-special) occasions. 

The Trickiest Treats

Sticky sweets

Gummy bears, fruit snacks (which aren’t real fruit, by the way), fruit leather and caramels adhere to teeth — so much so that they’re practically impossible to get off without a good brushing and flossing. Until you can get to the sink, the sugar in these candies feeds the bacteria that cause tooth decay.

Sour candies

These are troublemakers for a different reason: They are high in acid, which erodes tooth enamel. A recent study at the University of Alabama found that 24 popular sour candies have a pH level between 1.6 and 3 — anything below 4 causes damage. Brushing right away actually makes matters worse because you’re scrubbing the acid onto your teeth. It’s better to neutralize it first by drinking water or plain milk. Follow up with your brush about a half-hour later.

Not-so-scary Sweets

Lollipops and hard candies

These aren’t as bad as you’d think because they stimulate saliva, which is your mouth’s natural cleanser.

Chocolate

My personal fave, chocolate provides antioxidants called tannins (especially if you eat the dark kind), which may help prevent tooth decay. Of course, it also contains sugar (and lots of calories too), so you should still limit how much you eat.

Sugar-free gum

This is the only sweet treat that’s actually good for your smile; it contains xylitol, a substance that prevents tooth decay.

Our Family’s Strategy

We enjoy a couple of pieces of our favorite candy on special occasions like Halloween, then we brush or rinse to clean up our teeth. My office and many other dental practices across the country have Candy Buyback programs, where kids give up their sweets in exchange for a small amount of money. If your dentist doesn’t have such a program, create your own. This way, the candy is out of the house, and your child has a few dollars to buy a new book, a pack of markers or a toy. Now that’s sweet.

Dr. Carolyn Taggart-Burns is a spokeswoman for the Academy of General Dentistry and a family dentist in Omaha, Neb.

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