Sometime in our lifetime, the majority of us will deal with cavities and the dental procedures that correct them. But did you know that up until the 1900s, cavities were almost non-existent? Up until that time, many people dealt with gum disease but very few had cavities, and the reason is simple. Until the invention of Coca Cola and other sweet treats, most Americans consumed very little sugar, and if they did, it was eaten at mealtime in the form of a piece of pie or other dessert. And sugar is the major contributing factor to dental caries (tooth decay).

People who have diets that contain no fermented sugar don’t deal with cavities because plaque, which is always forming on your teeth, loves to feed on sugars from the food you eat. The bacteria in the plaque, combined with the sugar in foods, create an acid that attacks your teeth for up to twenty minutes or more after you have eaten.

Most people have some form of sugar in their diets, but it’s imperative to understand that leaving the sugar on your teeth will destroy the enamel and result in a cavity. Therefore, if you have to consume a candy bar, a can of Coke or some other sweet treat, brush almost immediately to deprive the plaque of feeding on your sweet treat as well.

Unsweetened fruit juices, honey and raisins—even though they are healthier forms of treats—have the same effect as refined sugar because of the concentrated natural sugars they contain. Other culprits that we might not suspect as causing tooth decay are cough drops, wine and even chewing tobacco, which is cured in sugar. Again, using these products doesn’t cause the damage to your teeth if you are in the habit of brushing almost immediately after they have been in your mouth.

Diet drinks and other beverages that are sweetened with artificial sweeteners do not cause dental caries because the plaque cannot turn the sweetener into the acids that attack your teeth. Fresh fruit is a good sweet treat because the natural sugar doesn’t stay on your teeth due to the fiber in the fruit, which “washes” the sugar off your teeth.

Because it is the ongoing exposure of the sugar to the bacteria in your mouth that creates the process that causes cavities, the habit of sipping a sweetened soft drink or even a cup of sweetened coffee or tea throughout the day, is very damaging to your teeth as well. If you take a sip of soda, the bacteria in your mouth will enjoy a feast for up to twenty minutes as it metabolizes the sugar in the drink into the acid that destroys your tooth enamel. Then a half hour later, you take another sip and the bacteria once again flies into action.

There is good news, however. If you eat your sweet treats with your meals instead of in between, the result is almost no exposure of the bacteria to the sugar, which combines with the other foods in your meal and the process of eating takes the sugars out of your mouth and into your digestive system.

I realize that many of us have a “sweet tooth” and discontinuing eating sugar probably isn’t going to happen. But when you do consume it, make sure you brush your teeth as soon as you can and try to get away from the habit of ongoing sipping or nibbling of sweet treats all through the day. And maintain normal dental hygiene of brushing your teeth each morning and evening, flossing, and visiting your dentist on a regular basis.