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October 25, 2021

Back to School: Healthy Food Options to Keep Your Kids Teeth Healthy and Cavity Free!

Now that kids are back in school, many parents have the responsibility of packing their children’s lunch and snacks. A lot of kids will have a strong opinion about what they would like to eat. Of course, it’s important that the food is nutritious and delicious. But how much thought goes into their dental health? As a dental hygienist and mother of three, Melissa shared with BURST (and all of you) on BURST tv the foods that can cause dental decay and healthier options to keep their teeth strong and cavity free.

First, it’s important to review what causes dental decay. Our mouths are full of bacteria – some of these bacteria are helpful while the others can be harmful like the ones that play a role in tooth decay. These bad bacteria combine with food particles that are not brushed away after meals to form a soft sticky film called plaque. The bacteria in plaque convert the sugar in what you eat and drink into acid. These acids began to eat away at the outer layer of the tooth called the enamel. Eventually, this will cause tooth decay. Even though cavities are largely preventable, tooth decay is still the most common chronic disease in children. Oral hygiene at home is very important. This routine should include brushing 2 times a day for 2 minutes and flossing once a day.

Now, let’s discuss how many hours pass before children are able to brush their teeth after eating lunch. Some school kids eat lunch as early as 10:30, if bedtime is at 8:00, that’s just shy of 10 hours of acid exposure. What kids eat at lunch can make a huge impact on their dental health.

After having reviewed what causes tooth decay, now we can discuss what type of foods to avoid packing on a daily basis. Cariogenic is a word used to describe foods that have the most risk of causing decay. Hard candies such as Jolly Ranchers and lollipops and sticky candies such as caramels and taffies are very harmful because they stick in-between and in the deep crevices of the back teeth making it easy for the bacteria to feed on and the toothbrush to miss. Since it takes more time for these types of candies to dissolve, it gives more time for the bacteria to produce acid. Another highly cariogenic food is dried fruit. These would seemingly be a great choice because parents buy them thinking they are super healthy and kids love them because they taste really good. However, they are very sweet and super sticky. Essentially, the fruit is dehydrated in a factory and it loses water and nutrients turning it into something more similar to a natural candy. Some of the worst types of dried fruit for your teeth is covered in yogurt or chocolate. These should be limited to an occasional treat. A fixture in many packed lunchboxes is fruit snack gummies. Unfortunately, these are mostly sugar – they might as well be considered a candy snack. It’s important to read the label as many in many brands the first two ingredients are corn syrup and sugar. You may be surprised to learn that crackers near the top of the list of most cariogenic foods. Crackers, bread, chips, pasta, and other starchy foods such as these should be consumed in moderation. These foods stick to the grooves in our molars where it can be difficult to reach while brushing. Since kids aren’t able to brush until hours after lunch, these foods are converted into sugar potentially increasing the risk for a cavity. Another fan favorite is PB&J sandwiches. In an effort to make these a little less cariogenic, good switches to make are to use whole wheat bread, sunflower seed or almond butter, and fresh strawberries or bananas instead of jelly. If your kids request a sweet treat in their lunch, a great option is fresh fruit. The old saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” is true and in this case, it’s the dentist. Apples are a wonderful option for healthy teeth as they are crunchy, full of fiber, and help remove plaque. Strawberries are another option that are packed with Vitamin C which is great for your overall health. Not all fruit though are good lunch box staples such as citrus fruits which contain high amounts of acid. The citric acid in fruits such as lemon, lime, oranges, and grapefruit can wear away the enamel on teeth over time. Again, these should be included sparingly. While on the topic of acidic food, we should note that pickles are included in this category. A quick tip when consuming acidic foods is to wait 30 minutes after consumption before brushing to allow the saliva to neutralize the oral cavity and to rinse with water. Leafy vegetables, carrots, and celery are not only are full of vitamins and minerals but they do wonders for your teeth. Mostly because they are crunchy and require a lot of chewing which produces saliva. This helps scrub our teeth and keep enamel healthy. If your kids like hummus, it pairs super nice with both carrots and celery. If you’re looking for another healthy, crunchy food option to replace chips, give walnuts, almonds, or peanuts a try. They are high in phosphorus and calcium which are important minerals to counter the effects of acids on the teeth. Again, try to choose options that do not have added sugar. Additionally, cheese is a great source of calcium and children tend to love string cheese in particular. Lastly, sugar free or unsweetened yogurt is another healthy option for packed lunches.

Now that we’ve covered food, let’s examine drink options. Soft drinks, lemon-aid, fruit juices, sports drinks, and sweet tea are harmful options for oral health due to the high sugar and acid content. However, some sports drinks are offered in a sugar-free version. Kids should be encouraged to drink plenty of water. Besides it being refreshing and zero-sugar, it helps rinse away food bits and neutralizes the mouth. Additionally, most water sources (excluding bottled water) contain fluoride which is essential for preventing cavities.

In conclusion, the overall goal is to create healthy food habits and smiles from an early age. This way, your kids are prepared to continue healthy habits as they become adults to maintain great nutrition and oral health to last a lifetime.