Too Much Soda Taking Its Toll on Kids' Teeth

From the WebMD Archives

July 12, 2001 -- Sodas are a thirst-quencher and a caffeine kick. But they're also ruining kids' teeth, say many experts. Kids are drinking the stuff from morning to night -- all through the school day. The result is a prevalence of cavities that dentists have not seen since pre-fluoride days.

"Not only are all these sodas causing tooth decay, but they are also putting kids at risk for obesity, diabetes, hyperactivity," says William Chase, DDS, a dentist for the past 30 years in Adrian, Mich., and spokesman for the Academy of General Dentistry (AGD).

"A lot of parents don't realize how much [soda] their children are consuming during the day, or the long-term effects on their health," Chase tells WebMD.

A few statistics: Soda consumption has more than doubled from 22 gallons of cola per person a year in 1970 to 56 gallons per person a year in 1999. In 1977, 12- to 19-year-olds drank 16 ounces of soda a day. In 1996, the same age group consumed an average of 28 ounces a day.

A big part of the problem, says Chase: soda machines in schools. Schools get significant funding from soda companies in exchange for selling one brand exclusively in schools. "We can't get the bottlers or soda pop companies to null and void their contracts with schools, because they all benefit," he tells WebMD. Schools use the monies to fund stadiums and billboards, he says.

So kids are getting sodas before school, between classes, during lunchtime -- anytime.

"When it's just a couple of cans a day, that's no big problem," says Susan Sup-Barnes, DDS, a dentist in Wheaton, Ill., just outside of Chicago, and a trustee of the AGD. "When it's six or eight cans a day, that's when we see the difference -- the most cavities."

The 16-ounce bottles are the biggest problem, says Chase. "Kids can sip all day, so they're dousing their teeth with pop -- bathing their teeth with sugar -- all day long." Carbonation in soda also breaks down enamel, he adds.

To protect teeth, here are his tips:

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  • Drink only small-size sodas, then head to the water fountain. "Whether you swallow the water or spit it out, it takes the sugar off the teeth," Chase says.
  • Don't brush your teeth after drinking pop. "The acid in the sugar weakens the enamel," says Chase. "When you subject the enamel to a nylon bristle brush with toothpaste, you're going to wear away the enamel even faster."
  • Drink sodas through a straw. "There's less direct contact with teeth," Chase tells WebMD.

Many other popular soda alternatives -- such as fruit drinks and juices -- can be just as bad for kids' dental and overall health, Chase says. "They don't have as much sugar, but some kids drink so much it has the same effect as soda pop.

"I would like to see kids carry water bottles in backpacks instead," he tells WebMD. "School systems should limit access to vending machines to after-school hours so kids can carry a bottle of pop with them on the bus."

But bottled water isn't the sole solution, says Sup-Barnes. "Bottled water has no fluoride -- and that absolutely makes a difference [in cavities]," she tells WebMD.

"Some families cook with bottled water, drink it," she says. "They don't use any water from the tap [which has fluoride in it]. Coupled with excessive soda use, unfluoridated water is really detrimental to teeth."

As for the issue surrounding vending machines in schools, William L. Ball III, president of the National Soft Drink Association, stated in a press release this spring that "science shows us there is no nutritional reason to further restrict the sale of soft drinks or any other beverages in schools."

Regardless, in March Coca-Cola pulled back on its support for "exclusive" soda contracts with schools.

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