How Sugar Free Drinks Influence Your Oral Health

Your everyday table sugar, otherwise known as sucrose, has 16 calories per teaspoon and can be found in many food and drink items. But as communities become more conscious of caloric intake and oral bacteria, many have turned to sugar free drinks as an alternative. Nutritional specialists often recommend that patients who are overweight or struggling from weight-related illnesses avoid drinking their calories. Still, store shelves and vending machines are introducing more sugar free drink choices to promote gentler diets. Keeping overall health in mind, it is important that individuals know both the positive and negative aspects of sugar free beverages.

Naturally Sweet

Although several beverages on the market are naturally sugar free, others use scientifically altered sweeteners that replace sugar to maintain their appealing flavor. Some examples of naturally sugar free beverages include freshly brewed tea, coffee, and both regular and carbonated water. Naturally occurring, no-calorie sweeteners such as the stevia plant can be added to certain products as well, in addition to naturally sweet items that have calories, such as agave nectar and honey.

Sugar alcohols are another category of sweeteners that have very low caloric value, but do not contribute to tooth decay the way traditional sugars do, according to the Academy of General Dentistry. Examples of these sugar alcohols are xylitol, mannitol, erythritol and sorbitol. The latter can be found in anticavity toothpastes like Colgate Total® Clean Mint.

Synthetic Sweetners

The sweetener market can get complicated, though: High fructose corn syrup is a processed sweetening agent derived from refining corn and extracting its sugars – making it both natural and processed. Other sweeteners that claim to have few to no calories, and have been added to drinks that are labeled "diet" or "light," have received negative feedback because the body cannot process these scientifically modified sweeteners. Examples of synthetic sugar substitutes include acesulfame potassium, aspartame, neotame, saccharin and sucralose. Some of these products have become so popular that individuals recognize them by their packet color: pink, blue or yellow.

Benefits of Sugar Free Drinks

Weight control and the prevention of type-2 diabetes are the two main benefits of consuming sugar free drinks, or those that contain natural sweeteners. A study in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) stated that women who drink regular sodas or fruit punches at a rate of one or more per day experienced an 83- (for soda drinkers) to 100-percent (for fruit punches) increased risk of type-2 diabetes than those who drank one or fewer sugar beverages a month. Sugar-laden drinks add unnecessary calories to the diets of those who consume them, leading to an increase in the risk for type-2 diabetes for these individuals. Sugar free drinks eliminate these empty calories, giving you the freedom to indulge in a sweet taste without the added caloric intake.

Sugar and Oral Health

Consuming beverages that are low in sugar decreases your risk for tooth decay. Excessive sugars found in sports drinks, soda and fruit juices pose a harmful effect on the teeth, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, because oral bacteria feed on these sugars to form the plaque that demineralizes your tooth's surface. The acidic content traditionally found in these types of drinks can further this process, increasing the rate of decay. Tooth decay not only causes sensitivity to patients, but can lead to more serious dental infections if left untreated.

Proper oral hygiene – including twice-daily toothbrushing, daily flossing and the use of a fluoridated toothpaste – can help counteract the effects of acid demineralization. Individuals who experience sensitivity from consuming too many sugary or acidic beverages can often find relief through the use of Colgate® Sensitive Complete Protection toothpaste, whose additional active ingredient, potassium nitrate, helps to stop sensitivity at its source.

Potential Negative Effects of Sugar Substitutes

Although the National Cancer Institute has raised concerns regarding the safety of consuming artificial sweeteners, no studies have confirmed that drinking products with artificial sweeteners added has a direct relationship with cancer diagnoses. Arguments for and against the use of artificial sweeteners do exist, and the dental community continues to address the questions consumers need to ask.

Nonetheless, seek out sugar free drinks in replacement of sugary sodas, sports drinks, juices and energy drinks to ensure both the oral and bodily well-being of your family. Natural alternatives such as plain tea, pure coffee or simply a glass of water remain the best choices when you're thirsty.

About the author: Emily Boge, RDH, BS, MPAc, is currently a health sciences public administration Master's degree candidate at Upper Iowa University and has practiced dental hygiene since 2003 in Manchester, Iowa. Emily is also the owner of Think Big Dental, a consulting and writing firm specializing in the education of corporations and health professionals on the role of dental hygienists.