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Q: My Nana, who had the most beautiful smile, always told me that sugar rots your teeth. Does junk food really cause cavities? If so, if my household gets rid of our sugary foods, will we avoid getting cavities?

—Susan, Gainesville, FL



A: There are many misconceptions concerning the causes of tooth decay, as well as the role of sugar in causing 'cavities', which we call 'caries' in dentistry.

There are 3 key factors that influence the development of caries:

1) Sugar
2) Bacteria
3) Time

Bacteria that are always present in the mouth feed off sugars. The byproduct of this process is acid, which decalcifies the minerals in the teeth and causes decay.

A misconception is that junk food and refined sugar are the sole cause of tooth decay. Actually most food contains either some type of sugar, or an element that converts into a sugar - including carbohydrates.

Instead of cutting out all junk food from your household, which isn't realistic or any fun, encourage everyone to clean their mouths after every meal. Brushing, flossing, using mouthwash, and chewing certain recommended gum can all help clean your mouth after a meal and prevent caries. As the third factor in tooth decay is time, the longer your wait, the more vulnerable your teeth. This is your cue to stop reading and go find your toothbrush!

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