‘Healthy’ snacks and children’s teeth

There are two broad categories of patients who come to see me with dental decay. The first are those with an uncontrolled diet – fizzy drinks and sweets aplenty with parents who don’t bat an eyelid when I ask them to consent to the majority of their child’s teeth being removed under a general anaesthetic “oh yeah, his brother had that done”. It’s a sad state of affairs that this is a social norm, but not the subject of today’s post.

The second group are a much more complex bunch. The parents arrive anxious and guilt-ridden, in disbelief that the ‘healthy’ diet they have been giving their child could result in dental decay. My heart goes out to these families, it really does, because they have tried so hard to get it right – buying organic dried fruit and smoothies for lunch boxes and choosing a natural toothpaste so that their little ones aren’t subject to a handful of unknown chemicals. So where has it all gone wrong and how can you avoid these ‘healthy’ pitfalls?

1. Eat fresh, not dried fruit

Firstly, let me explain that a healthy diet isn’t necessarily a dentally healthy diet. Dried fruit such as raisins are nutritionally valuable but from a dental perspective, can be a bit of a nightmare. This is because the drying process concentrates the natural fruit sugars, such as fructose, leaving a sticky product which hangs around the teeth, inceasing the length of attack. Fresh fruit still contains these natural fruit sugars but with the water still present, they are much less damaging for teeth. So, go for grapes over raisins, especially between meals.

2. Keep smoothies to mealtimes

Smoothies. Another healthy snack right? Unfortunately, the processing of fruit to make a smoothie also makes the natural sugars more readily available to the bacteria which cause dental decay. Ava loves smoothies. I keep Ella’s kitchen in business, but I try to ensure that a smoothie is given with other foods (either a more substantial snack or a meal) so that I minimise its potential to harm her teeth. You can also give your toddler a cube of cheese after meals and snacks – the cheese helps to neutralise the acids which cause dental decay.

3. Make a meal of it

The British Dental Association has a campaign called “Make a meal of it” which, amongst other things, encourages us to reduce our sugary snacks and fizzy drinks. As a mother of a toddler, I know it is difficult, make that impossible, to maintain a two-year-old on 3 meals a day. In our house we have 4 smaller meals – breakfast when we get up, a late morning lunch, a mid afternoon tea and then dinner around 6pm. By eating this way, I have found that both Ava and I are less likely to reach for the sugary snacks that hold little or no nutritional value, she also eats better at these mealtimes too!

4. Use a fluoride toothpaste

I’ve talked about this before, but make sure you are brushing your child’s teeth with an adult fluoride toothpaste, twice a day every day. National guidelines recommend a flat smear of toothpaste until the age of 3 years, a small pea-sized amount thereafter. Fluoride is s naturally occurring mineral which helps to reduce dental decay by around a third, and don’t forget to spit, not rinse after brushing to maximise the benefit. I wrote about fluoride and toddler teeth in this post.

5. Try to minimise the ‘added sugar’ in your diet

Interestingly ‘no added sugar’ diets appear to be very ‘en vogue’ but behind this apparent fad, is actually quite a bit of sense. There are so many types of sugar – glucose, sucrose, fructose, maltose to name a few but it is the non-milk extrinsic sugars (i.e. those that are added to food, not naturally occurring) which the dental bugs really enjoy. For this reason, try when time allows to prepare your food as freshly as possible – that way you know how much sugar (and salt) you are eating. At the moment, food companies don’t have to tell you what is naturally occurring and what has been added so you can be forgiven for being confused. This is one of the reasons I support Action on Sugar and why the British Society of Paediatric Dentistry is campaigning for clearer food labelling. When you consider that added sugar accounts for nearly 2/3 of our daily sugar consumption, you can understand why there is value in cooking from scratch and keeping processed foods to the times when quite frankly, it’s been one of those days.

Click here to hear Kate Quilton from Channel 4’s “Food unwrapped” talking about added sugars and food labelling.

Jimmy Doherty

I am talking to Jimmy Doherty about ‘healthy’ snacks and children’s teeth on Channel 4’s “Food unwrapped” on 23rd February 2015 at 8.30pm.

Post Author: Claire

4 thoughts on “‘Healthy’ snacks and children’s teeth

    Claire Holmes

    (February 26, 2015 - 7:56 am)

    Great blog. I’m a freelance dietician and have done lots of work with parents of under fives on feeding their children. So many parents buy expensive toddler snacks without realising they contain sugar and don’t start me on smoothies. Keep up the good work.


      (February 26, 2015 - 1:52 pm)

      Thank you, Claire! Please let me know if you are ever interested in writing a guest post. I am a Paediatric Dentist, not a Paediatrician or Dietician so I’m always interested in getting external expertise 🙂


        (March 3, 2015 - 9:42 pm)

        Thank you for your kind invitation – I may take you up on it some time. Apologies for not replying earlier – last week was a bit frantic, just like this week, in fact.


    (March 1, 2015 - 6:30 pm)

    Interesting! I kind of knew most of info, especially smoothies. My daughter, Ava, has a enamel deficiency, so will be trying cheese cube after meals to see how it goes. Xx thanks Xx

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