Best and worst foods for your teeth

A guide to the foods that stain and erode teeth—and those that can prevent or reverse the damage.
Health.com // Health.com

Prevention is the best medicine for your smile. Although fillings, crowns, and professional whitening can make your teeth stronger and brighter, it's better (and cheaper!) to avoid cavities and stains in the first place, by brushing, flossing, and—last but not least—eating right. As the following guide explains, the food we eat can have a big impact on our teeth.

Fortunately, foods like candy that don't always play nice with our teeth are generally harmless in moderation. "It's when we excessively use one thing that [it] can become a problem," says Matthew Messina, an Ohio-based dentist and spokesman for the American Dental Association.

--By Amanda Gardner, Health.com

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Citrus fruit

Citrus fruits and juices—a rich source of vitamin C and other nutrients—are good for you in many ways, but not when it comes to your teeth. Grapefruit and lemon juice, in particular, are highly acidic and can erode tooth enamel over time. In a 2008 study that involved soaking pulled teeth in various citrus juices, those two caused the most damage. Orange juice caused the least.

OJ is less acidic, Messina points out, and many store-bought varieties are also fortified with teeth-friendly calcium and vitamin D. "Fortified OJ is good for you on many levels," he says. "Drink it, but brush and floss as recommended."

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Chewy candy

The stickier the candy, the worse it tends to be for your teeth. Extra-chewy candies—like taffy, caramels, or Jujyfruits—stick to (and between) teeth for a long time, allowing the bacteria in our mouths to feast leisurely on the deposited sugar. "Bacteria burns sugar to make acid, which dissolves the protective layer of tooth enamel and causes cavities," Messina explains.

Candies that are chewy, sugary, and acidic—a category that includes many "sour" varieties—deliver a "triple whammy of negatives," Messina adds, because they carry their own payload of erosive acid, in addition to that produced by the interaction of sugar and bacteria.

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Hard candy

Hard candies such as Jolly Ranchers don't cling to your teeth as readily as chewy candy, but they have their own downside: Unlike, say, chocolate-based sweets, which are chewed quickly and wash away relatively easily, hard candy dissolves slowly and saturates your mouth for several minutes at a time, giving bacteria more time to produce harmful acid. To make matters worse, many varieties of hard candy are flavored with citric acid.

Besides, if you bite down wrong on some hard candies, they can chip your teeth—something no amount of brushing or flossing can repair. They don't call 'em jawbreakers for nothing!

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Pickles

Acid (typically provided by vinegar) is essential to the pickling process. It's what gives pickles their sour, salty taste—and it's also what makes them a potential hazard to tooth enamel. In one 2004 study that looked at the eating habits of English teenagers, pickles were the solid food most closely linked with tooth wear. Eating them more than once a day increased the odds of wear by about 85%.

Most of us don't eat pickles that often, however, and snacking on them every now and then isn't likely to noticeably affect your dental health, Messina says.

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Soda

It's no secret that drinking too many sugary sodas can breed cavities. What's less well-known is that the acids found in carbonated soft drinks appear to harm teeth even more than the sugar. The upshot? Even sugar-free diet sodas like Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi—which both contain citric and phosphoric acid—can erode enamel if consumed in large doses.

If you can't do without soda, your best bet is to drink it during a meal, rather than sipping it throughout the day. The food will help neutralize the acid, Messina says, and "the time of exposure to the acid is much shorter."

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Sports drinks

If you're in the mood for something sweet or fizzy, sports drinks and energy drinks may seem like a good alternative to soda. But Gatorade or Red Bull won't do your teeth any favors, either. These beverages are acidic, too, and are potentially even more damaging to teeth.

In a 2008 study, researchers at the University of Iowa measured enamel wear after steeping teeth in several different beverages for 25 hours. Lemon-lime Gatorade resulted in the most wear, followed by Red Bull, Coke, and Diet Coke.

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Wine

Here's a rule of thumb: Anything that will "get [you] yelled at if you spill it on a white table cloth" will also stain your teeth, Messina says. That means red wine, which contains substances known as chromogens that produce tooth-discoloring pigments. What's more, the tannins in red wine tend to dry out the mouth and make teeth sticky, worsening stains.

But even white wine can contribute to staining. Reds and whites both contain erosive acid, allowing stains from other foods or drinks to penetrate more deeply. A 2009 study found that cow's teeth soaked in black tea were more susceptible to staining if they were soaked in white wine (versus water) beforehand.

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Crackers

The refined carbohydrates found in saltines and many other types of crackers convert to sugar in the mouth very quickly, providing fodder for cavity-forming bacteria. Crackers also become mushy when chewed, turning into a paste-like goop that builds up in your molars and lodges between teeth.

If you frequently binge on crackers you may have cause for concern, but eating them in moderation isn't likely to cause any long-term problems—"as long as you do a thorough job brushing and flossing," Messina says. "Good oral hygiene will compensate for almost anything."

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Coffee

You know those stubborn brown stains that accumulate on the inside of a coffee mug? Those give you some idea of how coffee drinking can stain your teeth over time. Coffee stains appear to be even more persistent than tobacco stains, in fact. According to one study that compared the two types of stain, coffee-stained teeth were more resistant to toothbrushing and more likely to become discolored again following a bleach treatment.

In addition to being unsightly, teeth with heavy coffee stains tend to be sticky and apt to attract food particles and bacteria, Messina says.

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