There’s nothing worse than meeting someone and realizing that your breath smells like your tuna lunch, stale coffee or worse. What you eat and poor oral hygiene are the two main causes of halitosis, or bad breath.
When you think about it, the mouth is a dirty worksite: more than 600 kinds of bacteria live in the average mouth. Many produce smelly gases as they digest the tiny food particles lodged between your teeth and on your tongue. Some of the most offensive gases produced by mouth bacteria are sulfur compounds, which are formed during the breakdown of proteins. Garlic and onion also contain many sulfur compounds. A proper oral-hygiene routine, which includes brushing, flossing, rinsing, tongue cleansing and regular visits to the dentist, is an important first step.
—Gretel H. Schueller, Contributing Writer
But even with good dental hygiene your breath can still stink. About $1 billion a year is spent on breath-freshening products like gum and mints. However, these only work to temporarily mask odors. Fortunately, there are a few foods you can add to your arsenal in the battle against bad breath.
If bad breath is a persistent problem, talk with your doctor. It could be a sign of a more serious condition.
For tea-rific breath, try a cup of tea. Studies suggest that drinking unsweetened black or green tea may help ward off bad breath. Both types of tea contain antioxidants called polyphenols that can help destroy the growth of bacteria that cause bad breath—although green tea contains more because it is processed in a different way. A study conducted at Pace University, for example, found that green tea extracts were effective at fighting several types of oral bacteria by preventing their growth. Polyphenols also reduce those nasty sulfur compounds.
Recent studies show that eating 6 ounces of unsweetened yogurt every day can reduce the level of odor-causing hydrogen sulfide in your mouth. The reason is that active cultures in yogurt, such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, compete with the bacteria in your mouth that contribute to bad breath. Accumulation of plaque and development of periodontal disease were also reduced in the study’s yogurt eaters. Eat a cup of plain yogurt with active cultures and make sure to avoid varieties with added sugars. (Sugars allow for bacterial growth in the body and especially the mouth.)
Wet your whistle—often. Most odor-causing bacteria are anaerobic, meaning they thrive in a dry mouth. Therefore, drinking water helps flush out food particles and bacteria stuck in your mouth. Drinking water also promotes the production of saliva, which acts as a cleansing agent.
Nothing says stinky breath like garlic and onions. That’s because there are roughly 33 different smelly sulfur compounds that naturally occur in garlic and onions; they linger in your mouth and are absorbed in the bloodstream and expelled when you exhale. Parsley and basil help kick garlic breath. The polyphenols (compounds that act like antioxidants) in these herbs break down the sulfur compounds in garlic. For the biggest benefit, combine garlic and either basil or parsley in the same dish (think pesto!), though it may be possible to get the garlic-breath-fighting benefits of polyphenols by eating the herbs in dishes separate from the garlic, as long as they are consumed during the same meal.
While we can’t guarantee that an apple a day keeps the doctor away, research has shown that eating apples with garlic can mitigate garlic breath. (Think pork chops with apples and garlic-smashed potatoes. Or if the thought of garlic and apples together doesn’t sound appealing, follow a garlic-heavy dish with an apple.) The polyphenols found in apples break down the smelly sulfur compounds. Spinach is another polyphenol-rich food that is good at breaking down stinky sulfur compounds.
According to Sheryl Barringer, Ph.D., professor of food science and technology at Ohio State, the polyphenols in foods like spinach and apples should be mixed with garlic to break down the sulfur compounds. Luckily, spinach and garlic are delicious together.
According to nutritionist David Grotto, author of The Best Things You Can Eat, cherries and lettuce can also beat bad breath. Studies have shown that these two foods help remove the smell of methyl mercaptan, another odorous gas released by mouth bacteria as they digest bits of food.