I can’t recall how many times I have treated a dental emergency stemming from a cracked tooth brought on by an “eating mishap.” Often my patients will state in earnest that they were just eating a salad or something soft when they noticed a chunk of tooth missing or a sharp shard of enamel that has suddenly appeared and is cutting up their tongue. Well, invariably it was not the lettuce, tomato or piece of cheese that inflicted the damaging blow, but rather a more substantial food that cracked a tooth. So unless you like super crunchy croutons, crispy bacon bits or fail to adequately wash the sand from the spinach leaves, enjoy your salads with dental piece of mind. That said, there are foods that have bragging rights for wreaking dental disaster. Here’s my list of the top 5 dietary delectables that are potentially damaging to your dental work and teeth:
1. POPCORN: Innocent enough in their overall fluffy and puffy state and low in calories to boot, popcorn is the quintessential dental destroyer. Sitting in a movie theater or on your couch with freshly popped goodness, you slowly bring these morsels to your mouth with your fingers and begin savoring their deliciousness. As the level of popcorn lowers into the bag, fingerfuls expand to handfuls which produces mouthfuls and that’s when disaster strikes. Mindlessly munching on popcorn, you unsuspectingly chomp down on an un-popped kernel and CRACK GOES A TOOTH.
Teeth often break when in the process of eating something thought to be soft, an unexpected hard object is encountered and the force of impact overcomes a tooth’s integrity. I have seen perfectly healthy teeth with nary a cavity or filling split in half thanks to a wayward corn kernel.
So the lesson here is not to give up popcorn, but rather take your time and know what you’re shoveling into your mouth. Another common dental problem brought on by popcorn consumption is the localized gum abscess caused by a popcorn “shell” getting wedged in the gum. Gently flushing the gum or using a rubber tip to dislodge the popped intruder can often resolve this.
2. OLIVE PITS: A close second to popcorn as a notorious tooth cracker is the wayward olive pit. Whether the pit’s presence is due to poor food processing, poor meal preparation or failure to recognize that the olive to be consumed was in fact not pitted, olive pits break teeth in the same manner that popcorn kernels do their dental damage – unexpectantly chomping down on something hard when only softness in anticipated. Two bits of advice: be mindful of salad bars and be sure your martini olives have pimentos and not pits.
3. BAGUETTES, DUTCH PRETZES, BISCOTTI: Hard crunchy foods have a definite appeal. However, one must be aware: hard crunchy foods are hard and crunchy. The question is which is harder, that which is crunching the treat (your teeth) or what you are crunching with your teeth? Tooth enamel is the hardest substance in the body, but also the most brittle. Teeth with large restorations or fillings are structurally compromised and especially susceptible to fracture when being challenged by something especially hard and dense.
Being mindful of what and how you are biting can spare you from some unnecessary dental grief. Small bites with an initial exploratory nibble can be a wise approach to hard foods. Don’t bite off more than you can chew! Additionally, avoid chewing bones (Buffalo chicken wings, ribs…) especially if you have porcelain veneers or extensive dental work.
4. CANDY: Frozen Milky Way bars, Jawbreakers, Peanut Brittle, rock candy…do I really need to say more? These rock-hard morsels of sweetness were the cravings of my childhood and perhaps a harbinger of my as yet unknown career path. I remember my dad breaking his bridge with his first bite of a Milky Way right out of the freezer…. perhaps another prophesy of my future profession.
But perhaps more insidious and damaging than these very obvious teeth cracking confections are the Nibs, sour balls, lemon drops, Jolly Ranchers and numerous other examples of popular SUCKING CANDIES. The operative word on these delights is sucking, as in allowing them to linger languishly in your mouth as they slowly dissolve and release their sweet essence. But who can really suck on a Tootsie Roll Pop without biting it to get to the chewy chocolate center? I have seen numerous broken teeth in people who just did not have the self-control to NOT BITE THE NIB or NOT CHEW THE CHARMS. Enough said.
Of course one cannot discuss tooth-breaking candy without mentioning such gooey offenders such as Starburst, caramel, taffy, jellybeans and my all-time favorite, Mary Janes. I get a kick out of my patients who come to the office with a crown or filling carefully gift wrapped in tissue that is smothered or encased in some fluorescent-colored sticky glob of goo. Chewy candies have an unparalleled ability to engulf your dental work and yank it out. So stay away.
If temptation gets the better of you and mishap occurs, don’t wrap your dental restoration in tissues. I have seen more than a few people who accidentally threw out their crowns while cleaning out their pockets or purses!
5. FOOD PACKAGING: So you‘re on the go and pick up a little snack-a bag of peanuts or a protein bar. Or you need to open a small pack of something, anything, but the wrapping is on so damn tight and you don’t have a scissor or knife handy and your finger nail just can’t seem to get under the flap. So what do you do? Well in a moment of absolute determination to get the darn thing open there is nothing handier than your teeth, right? I just saw a patient this past week who ironically tried to bite open a pack of dental stimulators and ended up breaking his tooth!
Teeth are designed for incising, biting and chewing FOOD and not as a replacement for a Swiss Army Knife. Think twice before using your incisors as a kitchen utensil. When it comes to proper care of your teeth, common sense is often overlooked. So here’s a cautionary piece of professional advice:
Before you bite into that green Gobstopper ask yourself…is it really worth it?
DISCLAIMER: The advice I offer in response to your questions is intended to be informational only and generic in nature. Namely, I am in no way offering a definitive diagnosis or specific treatment recommendations for your particular situation. My intent is solely educational and my responses to your actual questions serve as springboard to discussion of a variety of dental topics that come up in day-to-day dental practice. Any advice offered is no substitute for proper evaluation and care by a qualified dentist.