How to spot sugary foods and protect your teeth

Dental Hygienist at Bupa UK
19 December 2016

Eating too much sugar can lead to obesity, diabetes, tooth decay and a number of other health conditions. So it’s important to try and monitor the amount of sugar in your diet. But with so much of the sweet stuff added to many foods you might not expect, it can be difficult to know just how much you’re taking in.

A woman holds a sugar cube between her teeth

Here I explain what happens to your teeth when they come into contact with sugar, and look at some surprisingly high-sugar foods to avoid. I’ll also show you how you can use food labels to spot high-sugar foods. That way you can be armed with the facts you need to make an informed decision at the checkout.

How sugar can damage your teeth

When you eat sugar, the bacteria in your mouth feed on the sugar and produce acid. This acid then wears away at the enamel (hard outer coating) on your teeth, which may cause cavities and tooth decay, also known as tooth erosion.

Eating sugary food and drinks on a regular basis means your teeth are exposed to these acids more often. So it’s important to have a break from sugary foods, to allow your mouth time to produce saliva and remineralise your teeth. This is when the minerals in your saliva naturally strengthen your teeth. So you can see that how often you eat sugar is just as important as how much you eat, avoid snacking in between meals if you can.

Sugary foods to avoid

The best way to stop your teeth becoming damaged from sugar is to try and avoid it altogether. So try to limit your intake of high-sugar foods like:

  • chocolate
  • biscuits
  • non-diet fizzy drinks
  • cakes
  • sweets
  • sweet pastries
  • fruit juice
  • jams
  • ice cream
  • some alcoholic drinks

Watch out for hidden sugars

There are many savoury and other foods  you may not expect that also contain surprisingly high amounts of sugar. Some examples include:

  • processed ready meals
  • table sauces like ketchup and BBQ sauce
  • some soups
  • cooking sauces like tomato-based pasta sauces
  • some breakfast cereals

‘Diet’ or ‘low-fat’ versions of food can also be very high in sugar. This is because when the fat is removed, often the product doesn’t taste as good, so sugar is added to improve the flavour.

Know your food labels

When you buy processed and packaged foods, the ingredients they include are out of your control. So it’s best to buy fresh produce whenever you can. But in today’s world it isn’t always realistic to cook from scratch every day, and convenience foods can be a big help. So knowing how to spot the high-sugar foods you’re trying to avoid might just help protect your teeth from decay.

  1. Use the traffic light symbols

    In the UK, most packaged foods now come with a handy colour guide on the front of the packet. These categorise calories, fat, salt and sugar as red, amber or green. So take a glance, avoiding any food that lists sugar as a red category and choosing the green labels whenever possible.

  2. Check the order of ingredients

    Did you know that when you look at the ingredients list on the back of your packet, they’re listed in order of quantity? So the higher up in the list of ingredients sugar is, the more sugar that product contains compared with other ingredients. So avoid foods that list sugar high up on the ingredients list.

  3. Remember – sugar isn’t just labelled as ‘sugar’

    Unfortunately, food manufacturers have a lot of different names for sugar, which can be easily missed when you’re reading food labels. Some alternative names for sugar to look out for include: sucrose, fructose, glucose, dextrose, maltose, invert sugar, molasses and corn syrup.

  4. Check the grams per 100 grams

    When you look at the back of your packet, see just how many grams of that product is sugar. For example, if there are 20 grams of sugar for every 100 grams of the product, that means the product is 20% (or one fifth) sugar!

    For food:

    • More than 22.5g of sugar per 100g = high-sugar
    • Less than 5g of sugar per 100g = low-sugar

    For drinks:

    • More than 11.25g of sugar per 100ml = high-sugar
    • Less than 2.5g of sugar per 100ml = low sugar

  5. Use an app to find out the sugar content

    You could also try downloading an app such as FoodSwitch. This allows you to scan the barcode of hundreds of products to find out how much salt, fat or sugar it contains. It will then suggest a similar product that contains lower amounts of these. .

Using these handy tips could give you more control over what goes into your trolley, so you can take care of your sugar intake and protect your teeth. But remember, it’s important to combine a healthy diet with a good teeth-cleaning routine for best results.

Take a look at our toothbrush trivia graphic for more information.

Monica Herreras-Fortuny
Dental Hygienist at Bupa UK

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