Okay, let’s be honest, sugary treats are loved by kids and adults alike for a single reason – they’re sugary. As much as all wish we could binge on that ice cream bowl or down our third can of soda after a long day in Lagos traffic, we know better. 

All that sugar doesn’t dissipate into thin air. Some of it is broken down in our body and converted to energy while the bacteria in your mouth hangs on to the rest – creating the potential for tooth cavities

But how exactly does this happen? We’ll break it down in this article and teach you how to protect your teeth against cavities.

The Different Types of Sugar

We all know sugar is bad for our teeth, but not all sugars are created equal when it comes to cavity formation. Let’s dive into the science and unveil the differences between simple and complex sugars

Simple Sugars

These are the cavity culprits we hear about most often. They’re quickly absorbed by the body and provide a readily available energy source for oral bacteria. Their structure is straightforward, making them easy for bacteria to break down and turn into acid, the main culprit behind tooth decay.

  • Glucose and Fructose: These two monosaccharides (single sugars) are the building blocks of most other sugars, including table sugar (sucrose). They’re found naturally in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, but also added to processed foods and beverages.
  • Sucrose: This disaccharide (double sugar) is formed from glucose and fructose. It’s the table sugar we use for baking and sweetening, and it’s also found in many processed foods.

Complex Sugars

These are bigger molecules made up of chains of simple sugars. They take longer for the body to break down, providing a slower and more sustained energy release. While they still contribute to acid production, their impact on cavity formation is generally considered less severe compared to simple sugars.

  • Starch: This polysaccharide (multiple sugar) is found in grains, potatoes, and legumes. It’s broken down into glucose in the digestive system, but the process is slower than for simple sugars, reducing the immediate acid spike in the mouth.
  • Fiber: This complex carbohydrate forms the cell walls of plants. While technically a sugar, it’s not broken down in the small intestine and doesn’t contribute to acid production. Fiber can actually help remove food particles and bacteria from the teeth, playing a role in cavity prevention.

It’s important to note that any type of sugar in excess can contribute to cavity formation. Therefore, moderation is key to preventing tooth cavities. 


How Your Sugary Treats Creates Tooth Cavities

It all starts with a colony of bacteria naturally present in your mouth. These tiny organisms form a sticky film called plaque on your teeth. When you consume sugar, the bacteria feast on it, converting it into a by-product: acid. 

The acid produced by the sugar-fed bacteria is surprisingly potent. Over time, it starts to erode this enamel, dissolving its minerals and creating tiny weak spots. This erosion is the initial stage of a tooth cavity.

Now, if you leave these weak spots unchecked, the bacteria party continues. They burrow deeper into the softened enamel, reaching the dentin layer beneath. Dentin is softer than enamel, making it even more vulnerable to acid attack. As the bacteria chew through the dentin, they create bigger cavities, reaching towards the sensitive pulp inside your tooth.

This is where the pain and other unpleasant symptoms of a cavity can arise. If left untreated, the bacteria can reach the pulp, causing inflammation and potentially infecting the surrounding bone and tissue. That’s when things get really serious, requiring more extensive dental procedures.

Surprising Healthy Foods You Consume That Contain Sugar

Salad Dressing: You might think a drizzle of vinaigrette enhances your leafy greens, but some popular brands pack a surprising punch of sugar. 

Yogurt: Yes, even yogurt, often touted as a healthy snack, can be a sugar trap. Flavored yogurts, especially those labeled “fruit on the bottom,” can have upwards of 20 grams of sugar per serving. Plain yogurt with fresh fruit and nuts is a much healthier alternative, offering the same creamy goodness with less guilt.

Granola Bars: Marketed as healthy on-the-go snacks, many granola bars are loaded with added sugars. Popular brands can easily contain 15-20 grams of sugar per bar, often disguised as “dried fruit,” “honey,” or “brown rice syrup.” Look for bars with under 10 grams of sugar and focus on whole grains and nuts for sustained energy.

Canned Fruit: While fruit is naturally sweet, canned varieties often get an extra sugary boost. Fruit cocktail, for example, can have close to 40 grams of sugar per serving, mostly from added syrups. Opt for fresh or frozen fruit, or rinse canned fruit in water to remove excess sugar.

Fruit Juices: Don’t be fooled by the “100% juice” label. Though technically fruit-based, juices lack the fiber that slows down sugar absorption, leading to blood sugar spikes. Stick to whole fruits for a slower sugar release and the added benefit of fiber.

Condiments: Even savory delights aren’t safe from the sugar infiltration. Ketchup, a common burger partner, can conceal 5 grams of sugar per tablespoon. BBQ sauce and teriyaki sauce are even worse offenders. Use these dips sparingly and explore sugar-free or low-sugar alternatives.

Flavored Coffee Creamers: Your morning java might be getting an unintentional sugar boost. Popular coffee creamers, both dairy and non-dairy, can pack 10-15 grams of sugar per serving. Skip the creamy additions and enjoy your coffee black or with a splash of unsweetened almond or oat milk.

Take Control Of Your Sweet Tooth And Prevent Tooth Cavities

While mindful sugar choices are crucial, remember – they’re not the only line of defense against cavities. Maintaining a proactive oral hygiene routine is equally important. Here’s how you can actively protect your teeth:

  • Brush twice daily: Brushing for two minutes, twice a day, with a fluoride toothpaste removes plaque and food debris, the fuel for tooth cavity-causing bacteria.
  • Floss like a boss: Don’t forget those hidden surfaces. Flossing daily cleans between teeth where bacteria love to hide and brushes can’t reach.
  • Rinse, repeat, rejoice: Mouthwash with fluoride can further neutralize plaque and freshen breath. 
  • Regular visits to your friendly neighborhood dentist are vital for early detection and prevention of cavities. They’ll perform professional cleanings to remove stubborn plaque and tartar buildup, and they can identify potential problems before they escalate. Aim for checkups and cleanings every six months, or more frequently if your dentist recommends it.

Final Thoughts

Every smile is unique, and so are dental needs. Consulting your dentist is the best way to develop a personalized plan for optimal oral health and protect yourself against tooth cavities. They can assess your individual risk factors, recommend specific products and strategies, and schedule regular checkups to monitor your progress and catch any potential issues early.


The Smile HQ is a dental clinic in Lagos that provides care for a variety of dental issues and procedures.

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