How Many “Sugar Minutes” Are in Your Day?

By Scott H. Billings, D.D.S.

Do you like to sip on a beverage as part of your daily routine? Does the beverage contain sugar? If so, you are at risk of creating cavities in your teeth. The term “sugar minutes” is used with regard to this because it is not just the amount of sugar that is consumed but also the number of minutes that the sugars are in contact with the bacteria on your teeth. Thus, sippers of sugary beverages are at a much greater risk than someone that gulps the drink quickly.

A good example is of someone that works at a desk and opens a soda in the morning and proceeds to take occasional sips. When the first sip touches the teeth, the bacteria absorb the sugar and begin to convert the sugar molecule to form an acid. Then, for the next 20 minutes, this acid begins to demineralize the enamel on the tooth and a cavity is formed. A little while later, the worker takes another sip and a new 20 minute cycle of acid production takes place. This sipping continues all morning and by lunch time the person has had 4 hours and 20 minutes of acid eating away at his teeth. If the worker took the same soda and drank it straight down there would only be 20 minutes of acids produced. So it wasn’t how much sugar is in the soda, but the frequent intervals of sipping, or “sugar minutes” that caused the most harm. The expression: “Sip all day-get tooth decay” is appropriate.

A similar result is seen with people that like to chew gum. They will chew a piece for a while, then replace it with a fresh piece and keep the sugar-acid cycle going for hours. Breath mints with sugar such as Tic Tac’s or Altoids, consumed habitually, wreak havoc with many people’s teeth. It is this repetitive consumption of sugar, day after day that give people multiple cavities. It’s a good idea to take a look at our own habits and how many “sugar minutes” we have each day.

There are many alternatives that will protect you from cavities. Sugarless gum and mints are safe replacements that will not cause tooth decay. While diet sodas do not contain sugar, they are carbonated which makes them acidic. The acidity will demineralize the enamel and make it more cavity prone. For people that drink many cups of coffee or tea, sugar substitutes can be used and won’t promote tooth decay. Be aware that powdered creamers contain corn syrup as a base and this causes cavities. It is better to use milk or half and half liquids. Ice tea without sugar or with a sugar substitute has caffeine, if that is your desire, but won’t hurt your teeth. And, of course, there is always good old water.