When you’re thinking about foods to avoid during the holidays, you’re likely focusing on calories — and neglecting to think about your teeth. But many holiday foods are absolute nightmares for your pearly whites and if you’re not careful, you could leave the season with stained teeth and gnarly cavities.
The reckless consumption of cakes, candies, pies, beverages (alcoholic and otherwise), meats, and sides carries with it a number of potential health risks — and some of these are dental, because many of these sweet and savory delights can do some serious damage to our teeth. The mixture of sticky candies, sugary sweets, and acidic alcohols and sodas is something out of a dentist’s nightmare. By knowing which foods to eat in moderation, or at least to chew carefully, you can avoid that emergency crown replacement and protect yourself from cavities.
The Daily Meal asked 11 dentists and dental professionals to give us their lists of holiday foods and beverages they won’t touch. There was a general consensus among all of these dental professionals that sugar, acids, alcohol, and sticky foods can do the most damage to your teeth and gums. Acidic foods like citrus, sour candies, or tea can wear away tooth enamel and lead to greater tooth sensitivity and a higher risk of fracture; beverages like eggnog contain the “triple threat” of sugar, alcohol, and dairy.
Also worth noting is that some foods affect certain age groups differently. Adults need to worry about fracturing a crown or a bridge, but they are less likely to suffer from tooth decay than someone under the age of 18. But regardless of your age, there are some foods of which dentists advise you just steer completely clear.
These iconic holiday treats are better left as a Christmas tree decoration. They might be minty, but they definitely don’t clean your teeth. Candy canes and other hard candies are notoriously bad for your enamel because they are packed with sugar and can also cause chipped or broken teeth, Bill Crutchfield, DDS, from OBC in Chantilly, Virginia, warns.
So much for these being a healthier Halloween treat. If you’ve ever tried to actually eat one of these, you know it’s a dentist’s worst nightmare. Dr. Jeffrey Dorfman, director of the Center for Special Dentistry, explained particularly bluntly to The Daily Meal, “They are sticky, sugary ,and acidic. They stick to your teeth. The sugar feeds the bacteria that cause cavities. The acid dissolves tooth enamel.” Ouch.
Though drinking four (yes, four) cups of coffee per day is being touted as a pathway to longevity, it might be wise to skip the fifth cup for the sake of your smile. “High-caffeine drinks cause reduced salivary flow. Saliva assists in removing food particles and unwanted sugars from the mouth. If salivary flow decreases, then sugar and food remain on the teeth and gums, leading to an increased risk of problems,” notes Ira Handschuh, DDS, from the Dental Design Center, says.
Corn is nutritious, but eating it off the cob can be tricky. “This is a difficult food to eat because biting into it can cause you to crack a filling or loosen sealant you may have in your mouth,” Fountain of Youth Dental points out. “Not to mention it's terrible to get out of braces or retainers, and can damage orthodontic wires. A better way to eat corn is off the cob, since you'll have a better chance of avoiding gum disease.”
Wine, cheese, and crackers might make an appealing appetizer for your holiday party, but pretty much everything on the menu is horrible for your teeth. We’ll get to the problems with wine and dairy later — but crackers aren’t so benign, either. “We think of sugar as bad for teeth,” said Dr. Leslie Renee Townsend, DDS, of Jefferson Dental Clinics, “however, starchy foods are unexpectedly harmful as well since these snacks — such as crackers and bread — break down into sugars that cavity-causing bacteria thrive off of.”
Think that canned goop is the healthiest thing on your Thanksgiving table? Think again. “Cranberries and cranberry juice are often recommended as a remedy for bad breath,” Dr. Harold Katz, dentist and bacteriologist, says. “But the canned cranberry sauce that you plop on the holiday table is another story. It contains corn syrup and artificial products that feed bad-breath bacteria.”
“These are great for decorating gingerbread houses, awful for your teeth,” Dr. Samantha Sacchetti explains. “Similar to the hard, sticky candy that you have the option to suck on, you have really no option but to chew them. The excessive chewing it takes for these things (longer if they’re from a stale gingerbread house) also can lead to some temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain. For a candy that doesn't even taste that good, it’s just not worth it to me.”
Dried fruit is a plentiful source of fiber and nutrients, but since they’re pretty loaded with sugar, these common holiday sweets might increase your risk of getting a cavity. “Although dried fruit may be a better option to snack on than a cookie, dried fruit is still full of sugar that will get in your teeth and cause decay,” notes Fountain of Youth Dental.
Eggnog is pretty much the worst holiday beverage for your dental health because it contains sugar, alcohol, and dairy. “Dairy proteins are easily converted to odorous sulfur compounds by oral bacteria. Sugar feeds the bacteria and alcohol creates a dry mouth, which is an ideal environment for the bugs to multiply. Eggnog is terrible,” Katz says.
There’s nothing more appropriate for a cold winter morning than a steaming cup of hot cocoa with a plump marshmallow (or five) floating right in the middle. Unfortunately, “hot cocoa’s high sugar content can lead to tooth decay, and the high dairy content may lead to bad breath,” Katz notes. You’re probably better off drinking golden milk if you’re in the mood for a cozy beverage.
Chocolate is essential to the holidays, but eat this treat in moderation, because milk chocolate contains a high concentration of sugar and dairy. “Sugar leads to tooth decay and dairy proteins are responsible for bad breath in many people,” Katz points out. If you must indulge, Katz recommends dark chocolate as an alternative because it contains less dairy and sugar, and possesses more healthful flavonoids than milk chocolate.
Nuts can be great for your health, but bad for your teeth. “While typically not the sole cause for a broken tooth (there’s usually an underlying cavity or really big filling), I see a lot of patients who break teeth while ‘just eating nuts,’” Sacchetti notes. Just be careful when you chomp down, and do your best to make sure there are no shells.
“The treat is super hard, sticky, and full of sugar. This triple threat can fracture a tooth, pull out a bridge, and can definitely leave behind enough sugar to cause cavities anywhere in a patient’s mouth,” Handschuh warns. Stick to the healthier, creamier peanut butter instead.
Popcorn might be a healthy snack, but it can be a problem when you accidentally bite down on an unpopped kernel. “Be careful and watch what your chewing, otherwise you may easily break a tooth,” Katz warns.
“The PSL is synonymous with chilly weather and the holidays are actually wreaking havoc on your teeth. Not only can coffee stain your teeth, but caffeine can cause dry mouth. The drink is extremely high in sugar and fat, which exacerbates bacteria growth on your teeth,” Crutchfield points out. If you drink a healthier PSL, you mitigate the risk a bit, but to protect your teeth we think you should order a chai latte instead.
“This may come as a surprise,” Fountain of Youth Dental contends, “but stuffing is actually a very gummy, sticky food. It's hard to remove food from between your teeth, which allows bacteria to go after this food, break it down, and turn it into acid that wears away your enamel.”
Skip the Sour Patch Kids and other sour-sweet candies because: “They are not only sugary, but they have added acids to cause the ‘sour’ taste. The combination of sugar and acid means cavities waiting to happen,” Brandi Dupont, DMD, chief dental officer at Community Health Alliance in Reno, Nevada, notes.
Thanksgiving takes a hearty, vegetable-based dish and turns it into a sugary nightmare. “Chances are you planned to top these with marshmallows,” Dr. Katz says, “and that’s a no-no.” In addition to the sugary mess this side dish leaves behind, “the marshmallows contain gelatin that has protein, which can contribute to bad breath.”
“Red wine is acidic and will promote staining,” Victoria Veytsman, DDS, of New York City points out. “While wine may have overall health benefits, you should take a few extra steps to ensure you aren't harming your teeth. Enjoy your holiday foods and beverages, but be sure to rinse with water frequently. And do brush, but wait 30 minutes after ingesting these so that you are not brushing the acidic beverage into your teeth.”
This is kind of a bummer — we wish we could add teeth-cleaning to the list of 20 other reasons a glass of red wine is good for your health!