The term ‘soft drink’ covers a vast array of beverages from carbonated, sports and energy drinks to fruit juices, dilutables and bottled waters. In the UK, we consume around 14 billion litres of soft drinks each year, with children and adolescents being most likely to consume more than any other age group.
Here, Dentist, David Bretton, considers the effects of some of these drinks on our oral health and shares his advice to help you to think before you grab a soft drink!
The bad guys
Carbonated drinks are made when gas is dissolved in them (carbonation) making them fizzy. Carbonated, as well as sports/energy drinks, also generally contain high levels of acids and sugars making them extremely damaging to our teeth as they cause dental erosion and decay.
An example of this is Coca Cola, one of the most popular soft drinks, which contains a massive 53g of sugar in a 500ml bottle – equivalent to 14 teaspoons! Figure 1 shows the sugar content in some other popular soft drinks:
|Coca Cola (500ml bottle)||53g (13 teaspoons)|
|Lucozade (500ml bottle)||43.5g (11 teaspoons)|
|Red Bull Energy Drink (250ml can)||27g (7 teaspoons)|
|Tropicana Original Orange With Extra Juicy Bits (250ml serving)||25g (6 teaspoons)|
Figure 1: Sugar content in some popular soft drinks (Data from BBC)
Teenagers are most at risk as shown by a 2016 study which found that 94% of adolescents had a consumption of free sugars above the 10% of total energy intake recommendations. In this study, the main food contributor to free sugars was ‘carbonated, soft and isotonic drinks!’
Here’s a reminder of the recommended maximum sugar intake per day for children:
How can the damaging effect of sugary and acidic drinks be made worse?
- High volume and regular intakes
- No tooth brushing: this leaves bacteria on the teeth, which are able to use the sugars to cause dental decay
- Brushing/grinding teeth immediately after: the acids in the drink make the tooth surface soft; this soft surface becomes heavily damaged and quickly worn away when we brush/grind our teeth after an acidic drink
- Consuming these drinks when we have a dry mouth: saliva is the body’s defence against acid and sugar attacks on the teeth. When we have a dry mouth there is little saliva and therefore little defence against sugars and acids. This is a huge concern as it is when we have a dry mouth that we are perhaps most likely to grab a soft drink!
- Swilling drinks
- Intakes at bedtime or during the night
What about diet and sugar-free carbonated drinks?
There’s increasing pressure within the soft drinks industry to create ‘healthier’ options in the form of ‘sugar free’ and ‘diet’ alternatives. These options are now slowly becoming more popular with 49% of carbonates sold in 2014 being low and no calorie.
However, before you grab yourself one of these ‘sugar-free’ alternatives, it’s important to bear in mind that though they help reduce obesity, diabetes and the risk of tooth decay compared to their ‘full fat’ sugar equivalents, they are still extremely acidic. Therefore, dental erosion is still a huge concern.
Are fruit juices a good alternative?
Fruit juices are known for having beneficial effects on our general health with the Government recommending that a 150ml portion of juice can count as one of your five-a-day. However, like carbonated drinks, fruit juice contains acids and sugar which can be damaging to our teeth. Therefore, we still need to consider some recommendations before grabbing the ‘healthy’ fruit juice.
“Like carbonated drinks, fruit juice contains acids and sugar which can be damaging to our teeth.”
Here’s a good way to get the benefits of fruit juice while minimising the damage to our teeth: drink one portion of 150ml fruit juice a day with breakfast and brush your teeth either before or around 30 minutes after breakfast.
Bottled waters are seen as the healthiest option by many of us, however we must be careful when selecting them. Many manufacturers are adding sugars and flavourings to help bottled water to taste better and to increase its appeal. The worry is that we could be ditching carbonated drinks for what we consider a ‘healthy’ alternative – which is in fact sugary water! For example, Volvic Touch of Fruit contains around 24g of sugar in a 500ml bottle (that’s equivalent to six teaspoons).
“The worry is that we could be ditching carbonated drinks for what we consider a ‘healthy’ alternative – which is in fact sugary water!”
When selecting a healthy option we should be going for unflavoured plain bottled waters, still or sparkling. While sparkling waters are carbonated, they have not been found to have the same damaging effect on teeth as other fizzy drinks. Alternatively we can go to the tap for our water – this is the cheapest option and may also, in some parts of the UK, come with added health benefits for our teeth in the form of fluoride.
Here’s some tips to consider when reaching for bottled water:
- Avoid flavoured waters: these usually contain sugars – read the packaging!
- Drink plain water daily: current recommendations are we should get around 2L of water a day
- Consider drinking water from the tap
- Plain water should be the main drink we reach for between meals and at bedtime or during the night.
Six top tips to help protect ourselves against sugary and acidic drinks
- Reduce our daily intake of acidic and sugary drinks
- Good tooth brushing: brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste – spitting and not rinsing afterwards. This removes bacteria to prevent dental decay
- Toothbrushing should be carried out before or approximately 30 minutes after an acidic drink
- Limit intake of acidic and sugary drinks to meal times: the food we eat helps defend against attacks on the teeth. It is important that we try and stick to three meals/day to limit sugar attacks
- Consider using a straw and do not swill the drinks: the damaging effect of these drinks is increased the longer these fluids are in contact with the teeth. A straw can help carry the damaging drinks past our teeth
- Avoid acidic or sugary drinks at bedtime or during the night: we should not eat/drink anything except water after brushing our teeth at night
Soft drinks are regularly consumed by a large number of the population – particularly a high proportion of adolescents! The choices you make about which soft drinks you choose for yourself and your children can have a detrimental impact on both your general and oral health. Plain, unflavoured bottled water or tap water is the healthiest choice for our bodies and our teeth.
So, remember to think before you grab a soft drink!