Sugar Free Drinks: Are They Safe for Teeth?

Diet sodas, 100-percent citrus fruit juices and other sugar free drinks can be surprisingly bad for your teeth. Most people know that drinking sugary drinks can cause tooth decay, but another cause of cavities is the dental erosion that occurs when teeth are exposed to acid. Phosphoric acid, citric acid and tartaric acid are some of the ingredients in diet sodas and fruit juices that damage teeth, but you can reduce the effects of acidic drinks by taking these precautions.

Dental Erosion

Although they often contain no sugar, diet sodas usually cause about the same amount of dental erosion as regular sodas. Matthew M. Rodgers, DDS; and J. Anthony von Fraunhofer, PhD, FADM, FRSC, researchers at the University of Michigan, compared the eroding effects of regular sodas and diet sodas on teeth and found very little difference. For example, after 14 days of exposure to regular Coca Cola, 2.8 mg/cm² of tooth enamel had dissolved, and diet Coca Cola dissolved a little over 3 mg/cm² of tooth enamel in the same amount of time.

Exposure to citric juices has a similar effect on teeth. YanFang Ren, DDS, PhD, and other researchers at the Eastman Institute for Oral Health found that drinking orange juice decreased tooth enamel's hardness by 84 percent, and markedly increased its roughness. And, according to Tufts Now, the acid in lemon and lime juice is almost as corrosive as battery acid.

Tooth-Friendly Drinks

Sticking to beverages that are low in acid keep your teeth from wearing, ultimately protecting them from becoming sensitive. Matthew M. Rodgers and J. Anthony von Fraunhofer found that tap water and root beer had the least effect on teeth, followed by black tea and coffee. All of these beverages dissolved less that 0.4 mg/cm² of tooth enamel 14 days after exposure. Milk is another tooth-friendly drink; Tufts Now suggests drinking milk is safe because it helps saliva return to a neutral pH.

Protecting Your Teeth

Sugar free drinks such as sodas, colas, sports drinks, pure orange juice and wine may cause dental erosion, but you can help protect your teeth. Brushing your teeth twice a day with a thorough toothpaste such as Colgate® Cavity Protection helps limit the effect these beverages have on your teeth, but wait a while before brushing. According to Caries Research, cited in Tufts Now, it takes 30 minutes to an hour for saliva to return the mouth to a neutral pH, and brushing before this time can actually spread these acids.

The best time for drinking sugar free drinks is with meals, Rodgers and Fraunhofer explain, and continuously sipping outside of mealtimes is the worst way to indulge. Drink through a straw to minimize contact with your teeth, and chase the drink with plain milk or water. And although you shouldn't snack between meals so saliva can have time to neutralize the acid, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry (AAPD) advises that eating cheese is helpful because it helps do this itself.

Cutting down on your sugar intake might reduce your waistline and reduce bacteria, but isn't always good for your enamel. Acids are listed on drink ingredients, so check the label before you buy. Wising up about the effects of sugar free drinks can end up saving your teeth and your smile.