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The Real Truth About Kid's Teeth vs Sugary Drinks

From A Dentist's Perspective

Coke and Pepsi, two of the biggest offenders.

Coke and Pepsi, two of the biggest offenders.

Sugary drinks have, as we're sure you've noticed, been getting a particularly bad rap recently. Not just the obvious ones like cola though, but also soft drinks with high sugar content that is less apparent, like some of those flavoured 'energy' drinks and water beverages that are trendy right now.

The reasons that sugary drinks are under fire are many; they are, in many cases, packed with calories that can contribute to the increasing obesity problem in adults and kids that is plaguing Australia (and the rest of the world), that obesity can lead to type II diabetes in the same populations, and, of most concern to us, tooth decay.

But is giving in and allowing your kid the occasional Pepsi really so bad? Especially if you have them drink the diet stuff? After all, they're only kids and they can always brush their teeth, right? The real truth behind the kids and sugary drinks issue is a lot more complicated than that though.

'Rethink Your Drink'. The much discussed and shared visual of how much sugary really is in our drinks.

'Rethink Your Drink'. The much discussed and shared visual of how much sugary really is in our drinks.

What Soft Drinks are 'Bad Soft Drinks' Anyway?

OK. We can establish that a can of 'full strength' Coke a day - with its 161 calories and 10 teaspoons of sugar per 375mL can - is not a good habit to get into, even for a lively child who'll burn off those extra few calories by running around being a kid with ease. But colas and other similar fizzy drinks are not the only baddies here.

Take diet versions of colas. No, there are no calories in them, and no 'real' sugar, but they are highly acidic, even more so than their regular counterparts - real Coke has a pH of 2.53 versus diet's 2.45 - which is a terrible thing for the teeth. And those high levels of acid are even found in some of the fruit juices we often consider to be the best soft drinks to give to our kids.

This acid can cause a specific type of tooth decay; acid erosion. Dr Amrin from the Emergency Dentist Sydney says, "We have noted an increase over the past 16 months in the number of children we see who have the beginnings of tooth erosion. Unfortunately this type of erosion is unnatural and irreversible as it is not a result of bacteria and effects the structure of the tooth."

And the leading cause of it? Sugary and/or high acid content soft drinks. You see, if you were to encourage your child to only eat their three meals a day, with no sugary snacks or drinks in between, decay and erosion causing bacteria only have three opportunities to damage teeth. However, sugary drinks and snacks extend the time the bacteria are producing acid, and even the natural damage fighting power of saliva is diminished.

During the hours between tooth brushings, damage will be done. Dr Amrin advises, "Even children with the most health conscious and diligent parents will encounter foods and drinks with extremely high sugar content. Best practice is to brush immediately after consumption."

Fruit drinks are often a surprise sugary drink.

Fruit drinks are often a surprise sugary drink.

The Worst of a Bad Lot

Wondering which products should be put onto the 'worst' list? According to a report from the Australian Dental Association, which involved the results of testing on 35 different popular soft drink options found in most supermarkets, the following were the biggest risks to the health of teeth

  • Pepsi
  • Coca Cola
  • Diet Coke
  • Pepsi Max
  • V Energy Drink
  • Fruit cordials like Golden Circle Pineapple Crush
  • Fruit drinks like Pop Tops Apple Blackcurrant Drink
  • Heavy fruit juices, as the acid they contain is particularly resistant to the effects of saliva. 

Of course, any parent will rightly ask what they are supposed to offer to their picky child in place of these admittedly pretty yummy drinks. If the warnings aren't enough just remember, "loss of tooth enamel in children can be extremely painful," says Dr Amrin. 

"Treatment for tooth decay in children is often traumatic. Multiple courses of antibiotics are often required and teeth may need to be pulled," he says. "For a child having teeth taken out, it's a very scary experience for them and it can often result in the need for a general anaesthetic. Not to mention the knock-on effects socially and long-term effects of growth."

Milk is a good choice, as is water that has been 'infused' with real fruit, by steeping pieces of fresh fruit in a pitcher full of water. 

Most of the damage to you teeth caused by sugary drinks is done in the first 40 seconds. Even with twice a day brushing sugary drinks can do serious harm to children’s' teeth, so they really are better off without them, and so are their teeth.

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