Artificial Sugars vs Natural Sugars: Which is the Lesser Evil?

woman considering dental work

We know sugar isn’t good for your overall health, and that definitely includes your teeth. From almost infancy, it seems as if parents and dentists everywhere constantly express the dangers of too much sugar. “It’ll rot your teeth out!”, “You’ll get cavities!”, “All your teeth will fall out!”. While hyperbolic, our parents and oral health professionals weren’t wrong.

When you consume, say, a sugary drink, the sugars in the drink immediately interact with the bacteria in your mouth, creating an acid that eats away at enamel. The more sugar you consume, the more work your body has to do to protect your teeth from the acid it creates. Without proper oral care, the acidic byproduct of those sugars overtakes your mouth’s self-healing capabilities, and you end up with ailments like cavities and gum disease. Not to mention that poor oral health can add to your risk of other health issues, such as heart problems and diabetes.

Sugar substitutes and artificial sweeteners are touted as “healthier” than sugar, because they tend to be low-to-no calorie, and they don’t wreak havoc on insulin levels the way natural sugar can. But are they actually any better for your teeth?

Sometimes… kind of….

Artificial sweeteners aren’t fermentable, meaning the bacteria in your mouth can’t use them to create that enamel-eating acid. However, the flip side of this, is that diet drinks with artificial sweeteners usually contain other acidic enamel-eating ingredients, like citric acid. So with diet drinks, you’re more or less trading one acid for another.

However, there are a couple instances where sugar substitutes might actually help your oral health:

  • Chewing sugar-free gum stimulates consistent saliva production, which is healthy for your enamel and gums.
  • Xylitol, specifically, cannot be utilized by the bacteria in your mouth. In response, the bacteria absorb it, meaning xylitol actually helps kill bacteria in your mouth.

Moral of the story is, stay on top of your oral health, and be mindful of what you eat. Just because something says “sugar-free” on the label doesn’t mean it can’t be just as harmful to your health as swallowing pure sugar. But if you keep informed on which types of artificial sweeteners are least harmful, like xylitol, you might actually be able to appropriate that craving for sweets into an indulgence that doesn’t hurt your teeth.