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How to protect your kids’ teeth from cavities


We all want to avoid cavities in our kids’ mouths, but parents sometimes struggle to keep kids’ teeth clean.

Sugar is one of the main causes of dental problems in children and adults, with the average Canadian eating the equivalent of 40 kilograms — or 88 pounds — of sugar a year. That’s the rough equivalent of eating 21,040 jujubes a year. Sugar reacts with plaque in the mouth, which in turn produces harmful acids that can do serious damage to the teeth. So, what can you do to keep kids’ teeth healthy during the sugar-rush season (aka Halloween)?

Reducing Sugar Intake

Avoid packing sticky sweets for school snacks, since they cling to teeth and most kids don’t bring a toothbrush to school. If you do choose to pack small sweets, make sure they’re eaten with lunch, not as a snack. The increased flow of saliva during a meal helps to wash away and dilute sugar, helping to avoid cavities in kids’ mouths. Encourage your child to rinse with water after eating sweets. Eating a fibrous fruit (such as an apple or a pear) or water-laden fruits and veggies (such as melons and cucumber) also dilutes sugar in your child’s mouth and can help avoid cavities in kids.

Ending a meal with a piece of cheese or a drink of milk also helps prevent tooth decay. The calcium is good for teeth and bones, and cheese has been found to have anti-cavity properties.

It’s easy to recognize Halloween candy, cookies and pop as being sugar bombs. What’s harder is identifying hidden sugars found in seemingly healthy foods.

Kid-friendly foods such as granola bars, fruit snacks and yogurt may appear healthy, but can contain as much sugar as a chocolate bar. Honey, molasses, dextrose, glucose, maltose and fructose are all types of sugar. The higher one of these words appears in the list of ingredients, the more sugar there is in the product.

Here are a few tips for lunches and snacks that will keep your kids happy – and out of the dentist’s chair:

Choose Sugar-Free Snacks as Often as Possible

You will be surprised how often kids won’t notice or complain that they are eating a sugar-free version. Some great-tasting snacks that won’t harm your teeth include:

  • White milk
  • Unsweetened muesli
  • Fruit and raw vegetables, sliced up and/or cut into fun shapes. Fibrous fruit, such as apples and pears, are especially good for teeth, as are celery and carrots.
  • Plain yogurt or plain Greek yogurt, cheese (cheese strips) and cottage cheese
  • Hard boiled or deviled eggs
  • Sunflower or pumpkin seeds
  • Hummus and pita bread
  • Melba toast instead of soda crackers that get stuck in between teeth
  • Salads (but take it easy on the dressing as it can contain high amounts of sugar)
  • Raisins. Though they have previously been suspected of causing cavities, they are actually full of polyphenols, which are micronutrients that prevent bacteria from bonding to teeth and forming plaque.

Avoid Sugar-Sweetened Fruit Juices and Drinks

Even 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices with no sugar added contain natural sugars (fructose) so they should be consumed in moderation. Fruit and vegetable juices also tend to be extremely acidic and the high acid content can severely damage tooth enamel in a similar way to carbonated beverage. Many kids are happy to drink tap water, and putting it in a cool water bottle makes it that much more appealing.

Beware of Sugar Levels in Bread

If your child eats a sandwich every day, be aware that some store-bought brands of bread can contain up to half a teaspoon of sugar per slice. Experts recommend no more than six teaspoons a day.

What’s Better, Eat Halloween Candy Quickly so it’s out of the House, or Let it Last a Few Months?

If you’re concerned about cavities in kids’ mouths, moderation is key. A bit of sugar is fine, provided kids brush their teeth afterwards. Keep Halloween candy to be mostly eaten at home so you know kids will be brushing their teeth after. Go through the candy with them and ditch the stickiest, chewiest candies that are the hardest on teeth. By giving them some control it should make it easier to divide up.

Anaida Deti is the CEO of Dental-X Smile Centres in Toronto. She is also a registered dental hygienist, certified dental assistant and certified dental receptionist. She is an active member of the Ontario Dental Assistants’ Association. Follow Anaida on Twitter @dentalXSmiles.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2015. Updated in February 2024. 

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