Image: Nutrition bars
Javier Soriano  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Russia's Denis Menchov wolfs down an energy bar during the 2005 Tour of Spain. Dentists urge athletes and desk jockeys alike to rinse their teeth with water after chomping down the sticky snacks.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/21/2014 5:30:11 PM ET 2014-05-21T21:30:11

For Patty Corn, the news from her dentist came as a shock.

“I was devastated,” says the 49-year-old mother of five from Allendale, N.J. “I had three huge cavities and I haven’t had a cavity since I was a kid.”

Her dentist, equally surprised by her patient’s checkup, started running down a list of potential culprits — soda, sports drinks, sweetened tea — all of which Corn says she assiduously avoids. Then the dentist mentioned something the busy mom, entrepreneur and tennis player consumes on a daily basis: nutrition bars.

“I’ve been eating these thinking I was doing something good for myself,” says Corn. “I even had one in my pocketbook for when I left the dentist. I just thought ... ‘what am I going to eat now?’

Sticky wickets
While candy bars and sugary drinks are well-known cavity culprits, many people like Corn have been surprised to learn their nutritious, delicious snack bars — packed with all manner of healthy ingredients like dates, nuts, raisins and other fruit — can be just as bad for their teeth.

“It’s the consistency of these bars,” says Dr. Richard Price, consumer advisor for the American Dental Association and a retired Boston-area dentist. “They’re sticky and when something is sticky it stays in the mouth longer and the longer it stays in the mouth, the more time bacteria have to work on it. That creates an environment that’s not healthy for teeth.”

Tooth decay happens when foods containing carbohydrates (i.e., sugars and starches) such as milk, pop, raisins, cakes or candy are frequently left on the teeth. Bacteria that live in the mouth thrive on these foods, producing acids which over a period of time, can destroy tooth enamel resulting in decay.

If we all dutifully brushed and flossed after consuming our beloved carbohydrate-laden bars, this wouldn’t a problem. But many of us wolf the bars down in our car or during a lunch-time power walk or eat them at our desk so we can keep working.

And that’s where we can run into tooth trouble, especially if we decide to couple an energy-boosting bar with a soda or sports drink.

“Bacteria use the stuff in the energy bar to make acid which softens the enamel,” says Dr. Jane Soxman, a spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry.  “If you add to it the phosphoric acid in soft drinks or the citric acid in energy drinks or sports drinks, then it’s a perfect storm for tooth decay. Once isn’t bad, but it’s the repeated exposure, the chronic use. Eventually you’ll get a cavity.”

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Athletes more at risk?
Unfortunately, sports drinks and energy bars are a common component of many athletes’ diet.

Courtenay Brown, a 30-year-old professional triathlete from Seattle says she had to make changes to her “on-the-bike” nutrition after her dentist talked to her about the “ideal bacteria breeding ground” her energy bars and sweetened sports drinks were creating in her mouth.

“I have friends and teammates with great teeth, but I happen to have weak enamel,” says Brown, who’s been plagued with dental problems since she was a teen. “My dentist had me look at my whole day — my diet, my habits — and the biggest problem area was that four or five hours when I was training and fueling my body. I would be on my bike for four hours and there would be a piece of a bar stuck on my back molar, just sitting there decaying.”

Brushing and flossing while on the bike wasn’t really an option; nor was stopping her training regimen in order to find a sink. So Brown’s dentist suggested she start drinking water with her energy bars and drinks.

“Now I make sure to drink water after I have a carbohydrate sports drink or eat a bar,” says Brown. “I rinse with water and stay aware of it and brush before and after riding. And my teeth are definitely better.”    

Chew on this
Drinking water isn’t the only simple fix for the sticky situation our energy bars put us in: Chewing sugarless gum can help, too.

“If you can stimulate your salivary flow, that helps to rinse the food residue away from your teeth and it also increases the pH of the oral cavity which makes it more difficult for the acid [to destroy the enamel],” says Soxman, a pediatric dentist in Allison Park, Pa. “Energy bars aren’t the problem. It’s the retention of the food on the tooth’s surface that’s the problem and that’s where chewing gum comes in. It clears the food.”

Good old brushing and flossing are obviously important, too, says Soxman, especially when you’re talking about ooey-gooey ingredients.

“You can’t get what’s stuck in between the teeth with stimulated saliva,” she says.

Most of all, it’s just good to be aware of the effect food can have on your teeth, says Dr. Price, who admits to eating energy bars while he’s out golfing.

“Just because food is healthy it doesn’t make it healthy for your mouth,” he says. “I walk around with a little dental floss in my back pocket. The idea is to be aware, to flush things out. We carry around combs, hair spray, hairbrushes. There’s enough room in our purses and pockets for a little traveling dental floss. There really is.”

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World."

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