What does sugar do to your teeth?

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Sugar does not directly harm your teeth but it enables harmful bacteria and acids, the primary sources of tooth decay and cavities.¹ Due to sugar’s role in tooth decay, in 2016, the American Dental Association recommended that people limit their sugar intake to less than 10% of all calories consumed.²

How sugar affects your teeth

Sugar is a primary food source for plaque, which leads to tooth decay. Plaque, a sticky film of bacteria, constantly forms on your teeth and feeds on sugar and starch. When you eat or drink foods containing sugars, the bacteria in plaque produce acids that attack tooth enamel. The stickiness of the plaque keeps the acids in contact with your teeth and the enamel can break down over time.³ The more sugar you eat, the more fuel you give to plaque in your mouth, which puts you at risk for developing cavities.


Cavities are one of the most common dental problems and remain the most common chronic disease of children aged 6 to 19 years. And, over 90% of adults over 20 have had some tooth decay.⁴

Treatment of a cavity depends on the severity. If your cavity just started, a fluoride treatment can help restore your tooth’s enamel and reverse a cavity. When a cavity has progressed beyond the early stages, filings are the main treatment option.⁵ During a filling, a dentist will drill the tooth, clean out all the plaque, bacteria, and debris that is in the tooth and fill the tooth with amalgam, composite, or gold to keep the tooth structure intact and prevent bacteria from getting back into the tooth.⁶

Sugar vs. sugar substitutes

Sugar substitutes like aspartame and saccharin are commonly used to make sugar-free foods sweet. Research has shown that sugar substitutes don’t have the same impact on your teeth that natural sugar has.⁷ However, in high enough amounts sugar substitutes can cause damage to your teeth. In moderation, consuming foods or beverages with artificial sweeteners is unlikely to cause cavities.

Are natural sweeteners okay to eat?

Natural sweeteners like honey, agave, and sweeteners from stevia are chemically similar enough to sugar that your body still processes them like sugar.⁸ Eating foods made with natural sweeteners can still contribute to the growth of plaque.

The difficulty of avoiding sugar

Even if you think that you’re eating healthy and avoiding sugar you may not be. Sugar is added to many foods by manufacturers as a way to make food and beverages more appealing. In fact, the average person eats 22 teaspoons of sugar a day when the recommended amount of sugar per day is about six teaspoons.⁹ Some everyday foods that often contain added sugar include:

  • Sauces

  • Breakfast cereals

  • Deli meats, sausage, and bacon

  • Yogurt

  • Condiments

  • Canned vegetables

  • Sports drinks

The best way to be sure that your food doesn’t contain hidden sugar is to make the food yourself. When that’s not possible, read labels carefully to find hidden sugar in the foods that you’re buying. Stick to fresh fruits and vegetables as much as possible to avoid the dangers of hidden sugar.

What do sugary drinks do to your teeth?

Sugary drinks like soda are bad for your teeth because they contain sugar and they are acidic. Despite the health problems they cause, sodas are still popular. A recent study found that 50% of adults have at least one soda daily.¹⁰

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The importance of oral hygiene

If you maintain a good oral hygiene routine, you can eat foods that contain sugar and not have to constantly worry that you’re going to end up with cavities. To protect your teeth, brush your teeth with fluoride toothpaste and floss at least twice a day. Use a plaque killing rinse after you brush. And be sure that you visit your dentist for regular cleanings and checkups.

Links to external sites are provided for your convenience in locating related information and services. Guardian, its subsidiaries, agents, and employees expressly disclaim any responsibility for and do not maintain, control, recommend, or endorse third-party sites, organizations, products, or services and make no representation as to the completeness, suitability, or quality thereof.

Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment, or medical advice. It is not dental care advice and should not be substituted for regular consultation with your dentist. If you have any concerns about your dental health, please contact your dentist's office.


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  1. https://dentistry.uic.edu/patients/sugary-drinks-bad-for-teeth-oral-health (Last accessed March 2020)

  2. https://www.ada.org/en/publications/ada-news/2016-archive/january/new-guidelines-ask-people-to-limit-added-sugars, 2016

  3. https://www.mouthhealthy.org/en/az-topics/c/cavities (Last accessed March 2020)

  4. https://www.nidcr.nih.gov/research/data-statistics/dental-caries/adults, 2018

  5. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cavities/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20352898, 2017

  6. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324267#what-should-i-expect-after-a-filling, 2019

  7. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/11/science/are-sugar-substitutes-bad-for-teeth.html, 2012

  8. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/artificial-sweeteners/art-20046936, 2018 

  9. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/finding-the-hidden-sugar-in-the-foods-you-eat (Last accessed March 2020)

  10. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/14/health/soda-pop-sugary-drinks.html, 2017