It’s a rite of passage: dressing up, trick-or-treating, and collecting the biggest haul of Halloween candy possible. But the not-so-sweet consequence of all those treats can be downright scary: increased risk for developing a cavity. Here, Dr. Kerry Maguire, Director of ForsythKids, the community-based oral health program of the Forsyth Institute, shares her tips for mitigating the negative effects of Halloween candy on teeth.
Are some types of candy better than others for teeth?
I wish I could say there was good Halloween candy and bad Halloween candy, but the best candy is no candy. Still, on Halloween and at many other times of the year, candy is a reality. (True confession: dentists like candy too!)
Sugar-free candies and gums are very tooth-friendly. The next best candy is dark chocolate. There is some evidence that dark chocolate could be slightly beneficial to teeth, and it’s definitely less harmful than milk or white chocolate. But adding a sticky component, like caramel, makes any kind of chocolate tougher on teeth.
Other sticky candies, such as candy corn, gummy bears, or anything that is sweet, sour, and sticky, are a recipe for cavities. Similar are hard candies that stay in the mouth for a long time, like a lollipop, or anything meant to suck on that’s not sugar-free.
What exactly is happening to teeth when we eat candy?
When you eat, and especially when you eat a high-sugar or refined carbohydrate food, the natural bacteria in the mouth consume the sugar and cause an acid spike in the mouth. It’s the perfect environment for demineralization or weakening of tooth enamel, the hard outer layer of the tooth. Demineralization of the enamel is the earliest step in the formation of a cavity.
The longer the sugar exposure lasts or the more frequently it happens, the worse it is. Say a child has a lollipop at 10 a.m., then lunch at noon, followed by a handful of candy corn at 2 p.m., and another at 4 p.m. If dinner and some Halloween candy follows before bed, the child’s teeth have been exposed to acid attacks almost continuously throughout the day. When that happens, the natural process of re-mineralization that occurs with shorter or fewer sugar exposures has no time to take place. It’s very hard for the teeth to recover from extended acid attacks.
Do you have any tips for parents who want to limit the negative impact of candy on their kids’ teeth?
Because Halloween and candy are pretty much inevitable, I suggest managing candy intake rather than forbidding it. One good approach is to group consumption of sweets with a regular meal. For example, when your child has lunch, include a piece of Halloween candy. At dinner, Halloween candy can serve as dessert. That way, the acid attacks are mitigated by a larger, more diverse meal. This minimizes the frequency of the acid attacks and dilutes the intensity somewhat, because it’s not only sweets being consumed.
As always, brushing is certainly a good idea after you eat anything. But brushing isn’t always possible. If you can’t brush, swish with water to thoroughly rinse your mouth or chew sugarless gum, which helps reset the normal pH of the mouth.
Another idea for sneaking some nutrition into candy intake is to combine it with something healthy. For example, peanut butter and apples are delicious together, so if your child is having a peanut butter cup, add apple slices. Rather than taking away a sweet treat, consider what might be added for a nutritional boost. That’s a parent’s best Halloween trick ever.