Sports drinks hide an acidic secret

Gatorade could be causing tooth damage

By Dr. Stephanie McGann, DMD FAGD, Columnist,

There has been a lot of research lately into the effects of sports drinks on our teeth. A recent study by the Academy of General Dentistry reported that tooth damage caused by sports drinks is 3-11 times greater than that caused by a carbonated (non-diet) cola beverage.   As I was reading this study my own kids were heading out to practice with the requisite Gatorade in tow.  The more I read, the more I started thinking about my kids and my concern for their dental health. For too long we have been lulled by great marketing to think that the ingredients in such sport beverages were somehow the magic elixir of great performance.

We all know that tooth damage is caused by acids in the mouth.    These acids get into the mouth three ways.

1. Bacteria living in the mouth metabolize the sugars we eat or drink and produce acids as a byproduct of that metabolism.   We know sugars can be bad especially when combined with poor hygiene (more bacteria).

2. Regular consumption of food or drink that is already acidic.  Read the labels, citric acid and or phosphoric acid is added to many common beverages. Many are only slightly less acid than the hydrochloric acid found in our own stomachs.

3. Stomach acids that find their way back into the mouth because of a gastric reflux or excessive vomiting.

What worries me right now is number two, because so many parents feel that they are being careful and giving their kids something like Gatorade or flavored waters instead of soda.  Yet the pH of most sports drinks and flavored waters is actually equal or lower (more acidic) than many carbonated sodas.  While some popular sports drinks have less sugar or none in the case of the new diet varieties the risk of acid erosion on teeth is still very real.  Sports drinks even sugar free varieties are NOT healthier than water when it comes to teeth.  The pH of some sport beverages is only slightly higher than stomach acid and significantly less than Mountain Dew.

OK, so let’s get some perspective, the research for most of these studies involves soaking teeth in the beverage for 15 minutes and evaluating the results.  So let’s put a real world spin on this.  When drinking a beverage that has a low pH (under 5.5) and contains sugar you should be aware of the facts.  While from a calorie, nutrition and hydration standpoint there is no real difference between a 20 oz bottle being sipped slowly or being drained in a few swallows, there is a huge difference in the dental impact.  All dental erosion is impacted by the time the teeth are exposed to the low pH.   So when you see the guy on the commercial draining the bottle of Gatorade in 3 big gulps, he has lowered the pH in his mouth for a few minutes.  The little boy who take a sip or two between every inning during a 2 hour baseball game has lowered the pH of his mouth for hours.  This kind of long term lowering of the pH can cause discolored teeth, teeth that feel rough like sandpaper, frosty white spots that are often areas of weakened enamel (hypo calcifications) or even cusps tips that now are dimpled.    In extreme cases the enamel chips away and the soft dentin layer underneath is exposed and can rapidly decay or become sensitive.

Beverage                                pH                              Sugar (tsp in 12 oz)

Root Beer                               4.6                             10.7

Cola                                        2.5                             9.3

Powerade                               2.8                             5

Gatorade                                3                                5.5

Mountain Dew                        3.22                          11

Lipton Brisk                            2.9                             7

Propel                                    3.2

Milk                                        6.6

Tea                                         7.2

Coffee                                     5.0

Water                                      7.0

Stomach acid                          2.0

Battery acid                             1.0

Dental erosion can occur with any food or beverage with a pH of 5.5 or below.  When in doubt drink plain water. When drinking sugary or acidic drinks, it’s better to drink them all at once than to sip over a long period of time.  Drinking these beverages seems to be better for the teeth if you use a straw, the liquid finds its way down more directly.  Always read the labels, even flavored waters often contain acids. So, as a dentist, a mom, and a consumer, I firmly believe that knowledge is power and knowing what we are drinking matters.

Dr. Stephanie McGann is a resident of the Unionville area and along with her partner, Dr. Marie Scott, operates The Brandywine Smile Center, a family-friendly dental practice in Concordville. She is a Fellow of the Academy of General Dentistry.

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  1. Shelley Mincer says:

    Also check out what actually is in Tang — the drink from our youth. It is the best thing to use to clean the inside of your dishwasher — takes out all those residue stains!!! Give it a try!

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