Are All Sugars Just as Bad for Your Teeth?

May 27, 2015, by Dr. Becky Coats

Types of SugarAmericans are trying to cut down on sodas and sugar consumption, but we’re still eating an awful lot of it. The most recent estimate is that we consume about 77 pounds of added sugar a year, or an average of 20 teaspoons a day. To get a sense of how bad that is, the American Heart Association recommends that a man consume just 9 teaspoons of added sugar a day and women should consume just 6 a day.

But if you listen to some people, it’s not all sugars that are a problem. In particular, high fructose corn syrup is singled out for negative attention, and is often blamed for crises like obesity and diabetes. Many scientists disagree with this assessment, claiming that there is little difference in the way that the body responds to sucrose (table sugar) and the way it responds to high fructose corn syrup.

But there is at least one way that these sugars are different. Oral bacteria respond differently to sucrose and fructose.

Understanding the Difference

Sugars are the simplest form of carbohydrates, molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Sugars are also called by the name “saccharide.” Some sugars are known as monosaccharides because they’re made up of one sugar molecule or disaccharides because they’re made up of two sugar molecules.

Fructose, glucose, and galactose are the three most common simple sugars we encounter. They are all named after where they were originally discovered. So fructose is named after fruit, glucose is named after grain, and galactose is named after milk.

Table sugar, sucrose, is a disaccharide made up of fructose and glucose. High fructose corn syrup is made up of the monosaccharides fructose and glucose mixed together. While sucrose is an even mixture of fructose and glucose, high fructose corn syrup is 45% glucose and 55% fructose.

While this isn’t much of a difference to us, it is actually a big difference for your oral bacteria.

How Oral Bacteria Respond to Fructose and Sucrose

Oral bacteria are adapted to surviving in our mouth by eating sugar. It’s interesting that although many bacteria can’t consume lactose (a disaccharide made of glucose and galactose), those in our mouth can eat it just fine–a vital adaptation to live in the mouth of one of the few mammals that can consume milk as adults.  And they can eat glucose, fructose, and sucrose, but they don’t use them in the same ways.

Every bond in a molecule contains energy, and bacteria get energy by breaking these bonds and reducing the molecules into simpler forms (including simple acids). For bacteria in our mouth, sucrose contains more energy than a mixture of glucose and fructose because there’s an extra bond–the one between the glucose and fructose molecules.

And that’s not all the benefit bacteria get from sucrose. Because sucrose is a larger molecule to begin with, bacteria can use it to make a special sticky protein that they use to create their biofilm–what we often call plaque–which helps them adhere to teeth and protects them from saliva.

So when it comes to your teeth, table sugar is probably more damaging than high fructose corn syrup. This means that if you have a choice between two bottles of soda: one sweetened with high fructose corn syrup and another sweetened with table sugar, it’s better for your teeth if you drink the one with high fructose corn syrup. (Though, of course, it’s best to avoid soda most of the time.)

If oral bacteria have damaged your teeth and you are looking for a dentist in Grapevine who can help you with reconstructive dentistry, please call Grapevine Dental Care at (817) 481-6888 today for an appointment.