The real bad thing
Not only will soda make you fat, it'll also cost you your teeth
I read something shocking recently: A study revealed that soft drinks provide 14 percent of an average American’s calories. An Internet search turned up other studies with numbers that varied somewhat, but the conclusions were the same: American consumption of soft drinks is at a historically high level, and it’s having a major impact on our health and well-being.
I admit that it was the actual percentage that was shocking, not the idea. My husband, Peter, is a dentist. For years he’s been warning his patients, our kids, and pretty much anyone who’ll listen about the dangers of excessive soft-drink consumption. When he first started, the response was mostly a lot of yawning. No one seemed to care much. School districts were getting badly needed money (in some situations amounting to millions of dollars) by signing exclusive contracts with major soft-drink corporations that justified their marketing campaigns by saying that fluid consumption is a good thing. Some school administrators encouraged teachers to allow students to bring soft drinks into classrooms to meet sales targets. There was even a report of a student’s being suspended for wearing a Coke T-shirt on Pepsi Appreciation Day. Increased consumption wasn’t limited to children, either; many adults had begun to consume soft drinks throughout the day instead of other beverages.
It drove Peter to a frenzy of frustration. I thought that I’d have to physically restrain him from exploding whenever he saw the cola logo on the signboard in front of our kids’ school. He and his colleagues were beginning to see evidence of the soft-drink industry’s successful marketing campaign in their dental chairs. They even gave it a name: “Mountain Dew mouth.”
There’ve been many reports lately linking soft drinks to rising levels of obesity. That’s given many second thoughts about the wisdom of schools’ allowing (much less pushing) soft drinks for children. Those totally empty calories are indeed a source of concern, but, from a dental standpoint, it’s all about the acid.
The reason sugar is bad for teeth is that it’s eagerly consumed by naturally occurring bacteria. They rapidly multiply, producing acidic waste products (a.k.a. bacterial poop) that, over time, can eat through tooth enamel and cause decay. The longer sugar stays in the mouth, the more acid is produced.
Setting aside issues of caffeine and artificial sweeteners, one solution to the problem might be to encourage the consumption of sugar-free soft drinks, right? Wrong. Acid levels in soft drinks are astonishingly high. Many of the most popular have acidity levels only slightly lower than that of battery acid. It’s important to realize that many noncarbonated soft drinks are just as laden with sugar and acid as the fizzy stuff is: sports beverages, “fruit” drinks containing little or no fruit, mixes such as Kool-Aid and lemonade. Sugar and acid deliver a double whammy, but sugar-free versions still have enough acid to cause problems.
There have been recent legislative attempts — some successful, some not — to require schools to restrict or eliminate vending machines with soft drinks and other junk food. Although that’s a start, soft-drink corporations have been all too successful in promoting their products. According to the Journal of the American Dental Association, “Americans drank more than 53 gallons of soft drinks per person in 2000. This amount surpassed all other beverages, including milk, beer, coffee, and water. It is clear that soft drinks have displaced nutritious beverages and foods from the diet.”
Peter is certainly still frustrated: “There’s nothing that upsets me more than seeing a teenager walk into my office with a 64-ounce soda cup. I just know that when I look into that mouth, I’ll see those chalky spots where the acid has begun penetrating the enamel. The worst was an 18-year-old. I’ve been her dentist for her entire life. When she left for college, she was totally decay-free. A year later she was in my office with 14 cavities! Unless her soft-drink habit changes, those teeth are going to require periodic refilling because the enamel around them will crumble. She may even end up needing extractions and dentures or implants.”
Children and adolescents are the most vulnerable to Mountain Dew mouth because their tooth enamel is more porous than that of mature adults. (Not surprisingly, adolescents — especially boys — have the highest rates of soft-drink consumption.) Even adults’ harder enamel, however, can be damaged by a constant bath of soft-drink acid.
That’s the real issue. No one — not even Peter — thinks that an occasional soft drink is harmful, either for the calories or the acid. It’s the constant sipping throughout the day that’s the culprit. Using a straw helps the front teeth but not those in back. Surprisingly, brushing immediately after drinking a soft drink is not recommended (unless you first thoroughly rinse with water); brushing in such a highly acidic environment accelerates enamel erosion.
One reason soft drinks have succeeded in replacing other, more nutritious beverages is their low cost. At my last trip to the grocery store, the young woman ahead of me in the checkout lane had her cart piled to the top with 2-liter soda bottles. “It’s such a deal,” she said happily to the cashier, “10 for $10!” Serving sizes have increased dramatically: Those cute 6.5-ounce Coke bottles of earlier decades have given way to ever larger containers, some as big as a human head.
Inexpensive high-fructose corn syrup has allowed soft-drink manufacturers to keep costs low and profits high. Ironically, USDA subsidies are the main factor in making high-fructose corn syrup so cheap. That’s right: the same government agency that’s telling us to limit our intake of refined sugars is facilitating their production.
So go ahead and indulge in an occasional soft drink, but remember what Peter says: “If you sip all day, you’ll get decay!”
Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.