Fruit and vegetables are a staple part of our diet. They provide valuable vitamins and minerals for our bodies to develop and function properly. So with the recent news reports and articles highlighting the dangers of sugars in fruit and juices, how can we find a balance between getting our valuable ‘5-a-day’ without causing unnecessary damage to our teeth?
As a Mum and a hygienist I have faced this question repeatedly over the years. When I finally won the battle that ‘just because our friends eat copious amounts of sweets it doesn’t mean we are going to’, I then realised I had to incorporate appealing, healthier snack options into their lives without increasing their chance of tooth decay. More challenging than this was how to encourage little visitors to the house, who didn’t eat fruit, vegetables, fish, chicken or anything that didn’t come out of a packet with Salt ’n’ Vinegar emblazoned across it to join in the fun of popping plain popcorn, creating fruit salads and enjoying dips with cucumber and carrot sticks.
Don’t get me wrong, we did, and do still indulge in sweet treats. I knew, as a hygienist, my children’s milk teeth were very vulnerable to decay and their sugar intake as little girls had to be well controlled. Now they are older they understand my reasoning and perceive sweets and pop as a treat only and stick to the straight-after-a-meal rule where possible.
So, what is all the fuss about fruit and why has there been an apparent U-turn? Well there hasn’t been a U-turn really, this information has been known for some time. As dental professionals, we’ve tried for decades to persuade the general public to eat healthier options and not over indulge in sweets and fizzy drinks. Fruit is a healthier option but needs to be ingested in the right way. For those of you who like a scientific explanation, read on.
The sugar held within fruit is called fructose and if extracted from the fruit and processed into a refined form, it has the ability to cause decay – almost as much as table sugar can. However, if fruit is eaten in its whole form, e.g. an apple or orange from the fruit bowl, then because the fructose is held within the cell wall then this ability to cause decay is greatly reduced. If the apple or orange are juiced then some of this fructose is released and can increase the decay inducing process.
So, looking at fruit from a potential tooth decay point of view, I’d always recommend that fruit be eaten in its whole form; drinking fresh fruit juice is ok but should be done in moderation. Check out food labels where fructose is listed as an added ingredient and try to avoid these where you can. Whole fruit and fruit juice are best consumed at meal times where an abundance of saliva can help to neutralise the acidic effect of sugar but also the fruit’s natural acids. Unfortunately, diluting fruit juice with water does not significantly reduce the acid effect.
Bananas and dried fruit are not entirely innocent either. They have a high level of cariogenic sugars that are not held well in the cell wall, so can be seen as decay-causing if eaten in excess. Again these should be eaten at mealtimes to reduce to possibility of any harm.
It’s not just tooth decay that can be caused by seemingly harmless fruit! Fruit acids are also harmful to the tooth’s surface. These don’t cause decay as such but can weaken and erode the tooth surface, dulling the lustre of the tooth, causing sensitivity and eventually causing the tooth surface to thin.
In summary, although we need to be more cautious with fruit intake, it is still a much healthier option than sweets, pop or crisps, with a little planning fruit can be and should be a regular part of our diets.
Making desserts out of fruit or asking children to eat fruit before a dessert can be eaten can be a way of encouraging children to eat fruit at the safest times. These are well-tested methods that I blatantly stole from a good friend who faced the same dilemmas as I did with fussy guests.
5 top tips
1. Choose vegetables over fruit when considering your 5 a day.
2. Eat whole fruit where possible.
3. Drink fruit juices through a straw and have at mealtimes only.
4. Stack up on brown carbs at mealtimes so you don’t feel hungry between meals.
5. Get advice from your hygienist about protecting teeth with fluoride supplements
About the author
Jo qualified as a dental hygienist in Leeds in 1988 and currently works in general practice in Crewe. She is Mum to 2 teenage girls Amy and Sophie. In her spare time she enjoys modern jive dancing, playing her saxophone and watching rugby league.
In 2014 Jo was awarded The Dentistry Show’s ‘ Most Outstanding Team Member’, was highly commended at The Hygienist and Therapy Awards and in 2015 was voted ‘Dental Hygienist of the Year’ at the Dental Awards ceremony.