America’s Sugar Addiction & Its Effect on Oral Health

Sugar can wreak havoc on your dental health.

Meet Larry Hammons, a Kentucky native that has a serious infatuation with soda. Larry is barely 18 years old, yet needs 26 of his remaining teeth to be extracted and replaced with dentures.


“As a kid, I was never worried about my teeth and I would take a pop everywhere I went,” Larry recalls in the documentary That Sugar Film, a recent film about the effects of sugar on the body.


He is just one many Americans that will have their teeth extracted due to excess sugar consumption from soda. This is, by no means, a newly emerging problem for the United States. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans consume about 150 to 170 pounds of refined sugars in a year. This is a shocking statistic alone, but it is especially startling when you consider the fact that the average consumption of sugar was only around 4 pounds per person per year less than 100 years ago.


Case Study: Mountain Dew Mouth in Appalachia Region


While the adverse effects of sugar consumption are well-known, these effects are especially relevant for the population in Appalachia. This region of the country covers all the way from southern New York to Alabama and is known for their alarming rate of tooth decay. The prevalence of rotted teeth is known as “Mountain Dew mouth,” which is named for the area’s favorite soda.


This problem has become so severe that an associate professor at the Appalachian College of Law even published a legal brief titled  “Undoing the Damage of the Dew” back in 2009. In the brief, Priscilla Harris explains why the drink is a part of the area’s culture and how it exacerbates poor dental health, which is already a common problem in the region. Oral health is already an issue in the region because it consists of some of the most remote and low-income communities in the nation. In addition to this, the population is also more likely to drink soda because they don’t trust the quality of well water in their homes. Mountain Dew happens to be a creation out of Tennessee, making it more relevant to the region.


Studies from the area revealed that approximately 26% of preschoolers have tooth decay and 15% of young adults from 18 to 24 years old have had a tooth extraction due to tooth decay or erosion. The elderly population is also affected with nearly 67% of individuals 65 and older in West Virginia having six or more missing teeth due to tooth decay or gum disease.



Many researchers say that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a part of the problem because it allows recipients to buy soda. SNAP is a program aimed to provide nutrition assistance to eligible, low-income individuals or families. A study from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity found that the government is spending between $1.7 billion and $ 2.1 billion on soda through the nutritional assistance program.


Whatever the reason, the area’s chronic problem with sugar consumption and tooth loss is evident. But, Appalachia is just one example and it’s only a particularly severe microcosm of an issue that plagues not just the rest of the United States, but much of the developed world.


What Does Soda do to the Body?


Although most of us know that soda isn’t great for our oral health and overall wellness, you’d be surprised to know the number of ways drinking a soda can affect your body within an hour. An infographic from health writer, Wade Meredith, has received plenty of attention after it highlighted how a Coca-Cola will affect the body in 60 minutes. The infographic was published on nearly six years ago and has gone viral since.


  • First 10 minutes: During the first ten minutes of drinking a Coca-Cola, ten teaspoons of sugar enter your body, which is 100% of your recommended daily intake. This is dangerous to your overall health and particularly dangerous for your oral health. Sugar affects your oral health because bacteria in your mouth will feed upon sugar from the foods and beverages you consume.  The acids from sugars and bacteria can eventually wear away at your tooth enamel and make you susceptible to tooth decay and tooth loss. The high amount of sugar in Coca-Cola is enough to cause soda drinkers to vomit. However, vomiting doesn’t occur because phosphoric acid in soda cuts the flavor, allowing you to keep the beverage down. Carbonic acid is another ingredient found in soda that can drastically harm your teeth. The harmful sugar and other corrosive properties of soda make it one of the worst beverages you can consume for your oral health.
  • Twenty minutes: After twenty minutes of consuming this soda, your blood sugar spikes. This then causes your liver to respond by turning sugar into fat.
  • Forty minutes: At this time, your body has absorbed the caffeine from Coca-Cola. This will cause your pupils to dilate and your blood pressure to rise. The response from caffeine will then cause your liver to dump more sugar into your bloodstream.
  • Forty-five minutes: The pleasure centers of your brain are stimulated due to the increased production of dopamine. On a biological level, stimulating the pleasure centers of your brain is the same thing that occurs with drug usage.
  • Sixty minutes: After an hour, the phosphoric acid will bind with calcium, magnesium and zinc in your lower intestine. This along with the high amount of sugar will increase the urinary excretion of calcium.
  • More than sixty minutes: The diuretic properties of the caffeine found in Coca-Cola will set in. This will cause you to evacuate the bonded calcium, magnesium, and zinc along with sodium, electrolyte, and water.


Dietary Choices in the United States


A diet high in sugar also plays a huge role in health and the rate of obesity in this country. Obesity is considered an epidemic in the United States and is classified by having a body mass index (BMI) over 30. The ranges for BMI are based on your measure of body fat in relation to your height and weight.


Sugar is obviously a huge component in the American diet and can come in a variety of forms. Ranging from cane sugar to high-fructose corn syrup, you’ll find sugar in just about everything that is readily available to the average American. Our love of soda and other sugary beverages isn’t the only way we can consume an excess of sugar. Processed carbs and snacks are filled with “hidden sugar” as well.


Sugar causes tooth decay and other dental problems, and that's only in addition to the general health problems it leads to.
Sugar is an abundant ingredient in most Americans’ diet and it’s a major cause for systematic health problems across the United States.


Packaged and processed foods have become a staple in the American diet. In fact, the diet of the average American differs quite a bit from the rest of the world. This makes perfect sense when looking at the health of our country in comparison to other developed nations. According to the study “Factory Food” published in the New York Times, Americans consume 31% more packaged food than fresh food, at least, one in four people eat some type of fast food every day, and 20% of all American meals are eaten in the car.


These eating patterns affect our health, quality of life, and of course, our oral health. Eating patterns in the United States differ from other nations for a variety of reasons. One big difference is the portion sizes in America. Everything seems to be bigger in the United States and this applies to our meal portions as well. Large meal portions cause overeating, which leads to weight gain and obesity. On top of our already large portions, Americans tend to eat more frequently too. That’s because there is an assumption that eating smaller meals can help boost your metabolism. In reality, there isn’t much scientific evidence to support this claim and this isn’t the way the majority of the world eats.


So, how do these dietary habits affect your oral health? First off, studies show that there is definitely a link between obesity and periodontal health. Although the exact relationship isn’t quite understood, most researchers believe that a higher BMI and percentage of fat tissue promotes a proinflammatory state. This proinflammatory state adds to the inflammation of gum tissue that occurs with periodontal disease. Frequent snacking, especially sugar-filled or starchy treats, will also put your oral health at risk because you are exposing your teeth to the harmful effects of sugar more frequently.


Improvements in the American Diet


The American diet is still very poor in comparison to other countries around the globe, but there have been some improvements made in recent years. Studies from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health show that steady improvements have lowered the rate of premature deaths. Researchers found that healthy eating habits prevented a total of 1.1 million deaths over 14 years. The study also found that there were 12.6% fewer type 2 diabetes cases between 1999 and 2012.


These improvements can be attributed to regulatory policies and increased public education on harmful dietary habits.


Soda consumption is declining and more people are drinking water.
Source: “The Decline of ‘Big Soda’

The war on soda is an area that has seen a lot of improvement due to regulation. Many schools and workplaces don’t permit sodas in vending machines anymore, allowing individuals to make healthier decisions. Projections estimate the sales of bottled water will soon surpass soda sales in the future. The popularity of soda shot up from the 1960s to the 1990s and is now experiencing a steady decline. As a result, soda companies are scrambling to increase their marketing for other brands like Aquafina, Gatorade, and Tropicana. Companies have also varied the use of low-calorie sweeteners to appeal to health-conscious consumers.


Tips to Cut Sugar


Although Americans have made improvements with the obesity epidemic, the Unites States still consumes the highest amount of sugar per person. The addictive properties of sugar make it hard to give up, but limiting your sugar consumption will end up having an enormous effect on your overall well-being and oral health. Here are some tips for successfully limiting your sugar intake:


  • Read Food Labels: You could be unknowingly consuming high amounts of sugar in the least expected foods. Make sure to read the labels of different foods to find out the amount of sugar packed in.
  • Slowly Cut Back: If you try to drastically cut your sugar intake, you probably won’t be able to sustain this dietary change. Instead, slowly cut out sugar until you’ve reached the desired consumption of sugar.
  • Learn Names of Sugar: Sugar isn’t always simply labeled sugar. Learn the other names for sugar (which includes any word ending in “-ose”) to accurate track your sugar intake.
  • Don’t Drink Your Daily Sugar Allowance: Sodas aren’t the only sugar-filled beverages out there. Other drinks like juices, sports drinks, and energy drinks are packed with sugar too. The American Heart Association recommends added sugar consumption should not exceed 37.5 grams for men and 25 grams for women. Cut out your sugary beverages because a single can of soda will end up exceeding your daily limit.


Cut The Sugar for A Sweeter Smile and Better Health


Ditching the sugars can have an enormous impact on your health. In addition to the oral health perks, you’ll notice a change in your overall wellness. Cutting out sugar will help with weight loss, memory, mood, and skin. Limiting your sugar intake can also decrease the likelihood of systemic health problems like diabetes and heart disease.

Another advantage to cutting the sugar from your diet is that it’ll greatly improve the health and appearance of your smile. Oral health can quickly affect your overall health, and dentists like Dr. Christine Ally and orthodontists like Dr. Rosie Aviles agree that sugar is the main threat that leads to cavities and gum disease. By limiting your sugar intake, your teeth will last longer and be healthier in the long run.

Need another reason to limit your sugar consumption? The less sugar you consume, the less you’ll crave it! Start limiting your sugar consumption today and enjoy all of the wonderful health benefits!