by Mark Burhenne
Long before dental school, I used to think I could “brush away” the sugar in my daily after-school treat, a Butterfinger.
But now, after nearly 30 years as a dentist, I know preventing cavities isn’t just about brushing and flossing daily.
In fact, what we eat — and don’t eat — can be just as important when it comes to maintaining a beautiful smile. Smart food choices can make the difference between teeth that cause you daily pain, and glowing teeth that serve you well for a lifetime.
So I’m sharing my seven favorite foods that help keep your smile healthy — and seven I wish everyone would avoid.
7 Best Foods For Your Teeth
1. Dark chocolate
Yes, chocolate is actually first on the list. Thanks to the cacao compound CBH, which scientists found hardens tooth enamel and makes your teeth more resistant to cavities and sensitivity, dark chocolate is a superfood for the teeth.
That’s why all my patients leave their checkups with a small square of dark chocolate in their goodie bags, along with floss and toothpaste. To reap the best benefits yourself, look for a dark chocolate with 75% cacao content or higher, and with less than 8 grams of sugar per serving.
2. Chicken liver
Vitamin K2 is essential to the development of the facial structure, jaw, and teeth. Why? Because vitamin K2 keeps calcium from building up in the arteries, instead injecting it straight into the bones and teeth. Vitamin K2 deficiency is a big reason why most children in North America require orthodontics.
But cultures who have access to organ meats from grass-fed animals — rare in our modern world — have straight teeth naturally, thanks to an abundance of vitamin K2 in their diets.
For a dish particularly rich in this essential vitamin, look for liver from grass-fed chicken.
3. Wild salmon
You probably know that calcium helps protect our teeth and gums. But did you know that your body actually can’t absorb calcium properly without sufficient vitamin D?
Fatty fish, like wild salmon, are a great source of this nutrient and will help fight cavities and gum disease naturally.
While this isn’t surprising, it’s hard to overstate how vital H2O is for a healthy smile.
Saliva is your mouth’s best friend, since it helps to neutralize acids in the mouth and prevent tooth decay and bad breath. And because saliva is made up of 99.5% water, you need to stay fully hydrated in order to ramp up production.
Bonus: Water also helps you between brushing sessions by rinsing food debris. Swish with water after snacks and meals, and you’ll help to prevent staining at the same time you increase saliva.
5. Snap peas
Looking for an easy snack that also boosts a beautiful smile? These vibrant veggies are the perfect in-between-meals bites. Mimicking a toothbrush and floss, the high fiber content helps to scrub teeth, breaking up biofilm and plaque buildup in the process.
Plus, the extra work it takes to chew these vegetables speeds up saliva production. Not a fan of snap peas? Aim for other high-fiber, crunchy fruits and veggies, like apples and carrots.
Scientists have found that the natural sweetener xylitol wards off tooth decay, thanks to special compounds that reduce the bacteria responsible for cavities. Since it’s not as digestible to bacteria as sugar, it’s also a poor food source for cavity-causing bacteria.
You can find it in most sugarless gums, as well as use it in place of sugar in many recipes. A word of caution for canine owners, though: xylitol can be toxic to dogs.
7. Green and black tea
Tea is a great choice after a meal, since it contains natural plant compounds called “polyphenols.”
Here’s how these work: Each time you enjoy a meal, you’re also feeding the bacteria in your mouth, which then excrete acid as a waste product. This acid is what causes cavities. But the polyphenols in green and black tea help to suppress the bacteria early on, thus keeping your teeth healthy.
7 Worst Foods For Your Teeth
1. Saltine crackers
Guess what? The most cavity-causing food isn’t candy — it’s the saltine cracker. How can this be? These snacks are a simple starch, meaning they’re easy for your mouth bacteria to break down.
That might sound good, but it’s not: the easier time bacteria have breaking down foods, the easier it is for them to multiply in your mouth. Simple starches are bacteria’s favorite, and the acid that results can cause cavities and bad breath.
2. Goldfish crackers
Ever noticed how these crackers stick to your teeth? That doesn’t just look bad — it’s also bad for your health. When this happens, bacteria get to feast and the production of acid in your mouth ramps up.
If you’re looking for a smarter snack, nibble on almonds, baby carrots, apple wedges with almond butter, cheese squares, or squares of dark chocolate instead. These are all more complex carbohydrates that take longer for bacteria to digest. Plus, they don’t stay put on your teeth, which causes damage long after you’ve finished eating.
3. Sugar-free soda
Sugar-free sodas give us a false sense of security. That’s because sodas are very acidic, and while teeth are built to resist acids in the foods we eat, they’re no match for the acid in soda.
Plus, soda is also something we tend to sip all day long — meaning our teeth don’t get much of a chance to recover from each acid exposure.
4. Sports drinks
When scientists wanted to measure how acids in energy drinks affect teeth, they took common sports drinks and bathed human teeth in each drink. Guess how long it took for the tooth samples to start showing signs of decay? Only five days!
Avoid energy and sports drinks altogether and, if you must have one, drink plenty of water right after to neutralize the acids.
5. Dried fruits
You might think of dried fruit as a health food — but they’re often worse than candy for your teeth. That’s because their stickiness makes them cling to teeth, allowing cavity-causing bacteria to go to town and produce acid long after you’re done snacking.
In general, beware of anything sticky or gummy, even if it once started out as something seemingly “healthy.”
Like many people, I enjoy drinking kombucha for the health benefits, including probiotics. Still, it’s important to be aware of its high acidity.
To neutralize these acids, I recommend drinking plenty of water with your kombucha and waiting at least thirty minutes or more before brushing. That’s because the acid in kombucha weakens tooth enamel, making it vulnerable to damage from your toothbrush.
7. Lemon water
Same goes for lemon water. While many people tout the health benefits of adding a few squeezes to your tea or glass of water, lemons are also highly acidic.
Since anything highly acidic like lemon juice can wear away tooth enamel, wait at least thirty minutes or more before brushing and try not to have it every day.