If you’re in the mood for something sweet or fizzy, sports drinks and energy drinks may seem like a good alternative to soda. But Gatorade or Red Bull won’t do your teeth any favors, either. These beverages are acidic, too, and are potentially even more damaging to teeth.
In a 2008 study, researchers at the University of Iowa measured enamel wear after steeping teeth in several different beverages for 25 hours. Lemon-lime Gatorade resulted in the most wear, followed by Red Bull, Coke, and Diet Coke.
Here’s a rule of thumb: Anything that will “get [you] yelled at if you spill it on a white table cloth” will also stain your teeth, Messina says. That means red wine, which contains substances known as chromogens that produce tooth-discoloring pigments. What’s more, the tannins in red wine tend to dry out the mouth and make teeth sticky, worsening stains.
But even white wine can contribute to staining. Reds and whites both contain erosive acid, allowing stains from other foods or drinks to penetrate more deeply. A 2009 study found that cow’s teeth soaked in black tea were more susceptible to staining if they were soaked in white wine (versus water) beforehand.
The refined carbohydrates found in saltines and many other types of crackers convert to sugar in the mouth very quickly, providing fodder for cavity-forming bacteria. Crackers also become mushy when chewed, turning into a paste-like goop that builds up in your molars and lodges between teeth.
If you frequently binge on crackers you may have cause for concern, but eating them in moderation isn’t likely to cause any long-term problems—”as long as you do a thorough job brushing and flossing,” Messina says. “Good oral hygiene will compensate for almost anything.”
You know those stubborn brown stains that accumulate on the inside of a coffee mug? Those give you some idea of how coffee drinking can stain your teeth over time. Coffee stains appear to be even more persistent than tobacco stains, in fact. According to one study that compared the two types of stain, coffee-stained teeth were more resistant to toothbrushing and more likely to become discolored again following a bleach treatment.
In addition to being unsightly, teeth with heavy coffee stains tend to be sticky and apt to attract food particles and bacteria, Messina says.
Tea may seem like coffee’s gentler, kinder cousin, but that’s not necessarily the case when your teeth are involved. Some black tea may even stain your teeth more than coffee. Like red wine, black teas tend to have a high tannin content, which promotes staining.
Not surprisingly, teas that are less rich in tannins—green tea, white tea, and herbal tea—aren’t as likely to discolor your teeth. Herbal tea may have another drawback, though: In one study, herbal tea was found to erode dental enamel substantially more than black tea did.
How to reverse the damage
Now that you know which foods can stain or weaken your teeth, it’s time to focus on those that can help prevent or even reverse this dental damage. The good news is, if you eat a healthy diet you’re probably already getting plenty of them, since many of the same foods that are good for our bodies in general—like vegetables—are also good for our teeth.
Best and Worst Foods for Your Teeth