The Latest on the Plague of Plaque
The sugar you eat does two things to your teeth—both bad. First, it feeds the bacteria in your mouth, and these produce acid that attacks your teeth. Second, it helps the bacteria to produce a sticky substance called plaque, which holds the bacteria and the acid safe and snug against your teeth for maximum damage. Recent studies, however, have unveiled some surprises that may at least help to control, if not eliminate, the plague of plaque. Here are some of the latest findings.
● It’s how often you eat, not how much. Your mouth is able gradually to neutralize the acid produced by the bacteria after you eat. In a few hours, the decaying action is stopped. But if you like to nibble on things throughout the day, the acid lingers on. So, better devour your sweets in one sitting, if you can’t do without them.
● More sugar, more decay? Not necessarily. Beyond a certain minimum, all sugarrich foods seem to be equally damaging to your teeth. Researchers found, for example, that a breakfast cereal with one percent sugar caused very few cavities, but one with 8 percent sugar caused as many as those containing up to 60 percent sugar. But, still, no sugar, no decay.
● Some foods are surprises. Cheddar cheese, for example, has a decay-slowing effect if it is eaten right along with or after sugar. The reason is yet unknown. Peanuts are harmless to your teeth. On the other hand, beware of potato chips—they are worse than chocolate bars and caramels.
● Preventive additive. Dicalcium phosphate is a common food additive. It is also found in dentifrices. It can cut the potency of sweets in half. “You may be able to modify many sweets or desserts,” says researcher Dr. William Bowen, “by adding this phosphate, and thus cut down on the damage they will do.”
As you may expect, dental research is a very active field today. Many new ideas are being tried and avenues explored. Here are some areas in which researchers hope to come up with something soon.
● Make the aches less painful. Dental nerves are unique—they feel only pain. And they are so densely packed that a little pain in one nerve can easily cause surrounding ones to flare up, thus amplifying the pain. A chemical is being developed that may “uncouple” the nerves—and reduce the pain. But how much better to avoid what causes the pain!
● A vaccine to stop decay. The idea has been around a long time. The body’s immune system can be stimulated to produce antibodies to fight off invading bacteria. Several vaccines have been tried on animals, with positive results thus far. Under investigation is another type of vaccine that prevents plaque from sticking to the teeth. No plaque, no decay.
● The “No Vacancy” principle. Scientists are studying varieties, or mutants, of the mouth bacteria that do not produce the decay-causing acid. If these harmless mutants are introduced into the mouth early enough, they may crowd out the others. Bacteria that prevent periodontal disease—decay of the gum—are also being investigated by dental researchers.
While these and other ideas are being studied, and much is being promised, there remains the old standby—simple toothbrushing after every meal.
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DECAY-CAUSING POTENTIAL OF SNACK FOODS
With the cavity-causing power of white sugar expressed as 100, common snack foods are rated as below.
Cream-filled chocolate cookies 140
Confectioner’s sugar 100
Breakfast cereal with 8% sugar 96
Sugar-coated cereal (60% sugar) 94
Potato chips 84
Chocolate bars 72
White powdered starch 45
Confectioner’s sugar with 7%
dicalcium phosphate added 42