Last time I visited the dentist, we were having one of those awkward, mouth-full-of-toothpaste conversations. She was asking me about my work (I’m the associate nutrition editor of EatingWell Magazine and a registered dietitian, and I write a lot about food and health), when it occurred to me that I wanted to write about foods for healthier teeth (and by extension, a brighter smile).
Here’s what I found out:
—Kerri-Ann Jennings, M.S., R.D.
Crunchy and chewy foods—such as carrots, celery and nuts—cause saliva to flow; saliva neutralizes the acids formed by cavity-causing bacteria. (Sticky and sweet foods, on the other hand, help that bacteria to grow and develop into plaque—a bacterial buildup that can give rise to cavities.
Milk and cheese are naturally good for your teeth. Not only do they provide calcium, which helps make teeth and bones strong, they also deliver casein, a protein that reduces cavity formation.
Several foods directly combat the bacteria that cause cavities, bad breath and gum disease. Garlic, apples, grapes, shiitake mushrooms, cocoa and nutmeg contain compounds that may prevent cavity-causing bacteria from adhering to teeth.
You might think that because raisins are sweet and sticky, they wouldn't be good for your oral health. But research has shown that antioxidants in raisins fight the growth of a type of bacteria that can cause inflammation and gum disease, according to research from the Illinois College of Dentistry.
Green tea contains antioxidants called catechins that may tamp down the body’s inflammatory response to the bacteria that cause gum disease. A study found that a daily cup of green tea significantly lowered Japanese men’s risk of developing gum disease. (Add this one ingredient to maximize the flavor and health benefits of tea.) The polyphenols in black tea can help destroy the growth of bacteria that cause bad breath too.
Water keeps your throat and lips moist and prevents your mouth from feeling dry. Dry mouth can cause bad breath and/or an unpleasant taste—and can even promote cavities.
Researchers from Japan, publishing their findings in the Journal of Periodontology, analyzed dietary intakes from nearly 1,000 adults and found those who consumed the highest levels of dairy—specifically yogurt and yogurt-type drinks—had the healthiest gums. They think the probiotics (a.k.a. “good bacteria”) in yogurt might be responsible for protecting gums. A 2005 study also found that yogurt can stop the growth of bad-breath-causing bacteria.