It was recently, and rather unkindly, pointed out to me by my girlfriend that I’ve been getting a bit of a belly due to working long hours and getting on in years. To combat this, I decided to cut some calories out of my daily diet, and the easiest way to do this seemed to be cutting out soda, which I drank a fairly epic amount of on a daily basis. This was rather difficult, I was pretty seriously hooked on getting a good sugar rush going through the day, but I found if I just drank a diet soda whenever I found myself battling a hankering for the real stuff, I could fool my body into stopping its whining, and soon enough I was back to my usual svelte self.
The side effect of this is that I am now drinking even more epic amounts of diet soda. Which got me to wondering, regular soda is well known for putting a lot of sugar in you mouth for various unsavory bacteria to live off and generate byproducts that cause cavities. Can those same bacteria break down the artificial, and to me indigestible sugars, that come in diet coke and thus wreck equal havoc on ones teeth, or is aspartame and the like as useless to them as myself and thus not a dental risk factor.
I have always understood that presuming one drinks one’s soda normally (that is one does not strangely hold it in the mouth for a long period of time), the action of acid in the soda is trivial for the teeth. Rather the stickiness of sugars and the fact they remain on the teeth (contra the acids) is the source of problems. In that respect the question may be asked, are bacterias able to exploit the sugar substitutes in similar ways?
I listed them, because that’s the only problem ingredient left in the diet soda. Some people suck on diet soda all day so they keep bathing them in acid if they pick a pop with it. The sugar is the biggest problem.
Every time this question comes up, I like to recommend Dr. Spiller’s web site at www.doctorspiller.com. He’s a dentist who put up a great website dealing with all aspects of dentistry, and, along the way, he addresses the whole “diet sodas” thing, and addresses the “are artificial sweeteners bad for me?” question as well.
Here is what he has to say about diet sodas and artificial sweeteners. His first page in the tooth decay series also has some information, and goes into great detail about what exactly causes tooth decay. Fascinating, if somewhat disturbing, reading.
ETA: Just wanted to add a note that I’m not sure I’ve added before. I don’t know Dr. Spiller personally; I think he’s way across the country from me. I just found his website a few years ago while I was researching this precise question (whether artificial sweeteners cause tooth decay) and was blown away by the quality of his site.
“Huge quantities of diet soda and other prepared foods containing these compounds have been consumed by literally billions of people worldwide for over 30 years. How dangerous could these artificial sweeteners be if they have been used for that long by that many people with no indication of a public health hazard?”
From Dr Spiller. Not an entirely fair point. If something’s consumed by ‘literally billions of people worldwide’, won’t it make it that much harder to test for, given the sheer number of variables involved?
In general, you’re correct – it’s not harmful. This is because the acids that are in diet sodas (like citric acid and phosphoric acid) are water soluble, so they’re washed off your teeth by saliva almost immediately.
However, they are potentially harmful, if you keep the soda against your teeth for long periods of time. But most people don’t hold soda in their mouth; they swallow it immediately. Even if you’re sipping diet sodas all day long, you usually spend a lot more time without soda in your mouth than with.
And, as Hazle Weatherfield pointed out, drinking it with a straw minimizes contact with your teeth even further.
In virtually all real-life cases, the damage is done by sugar, which allows bacteria to build up big sticky colonies that poop out acid right next to your enamel for long periods of time.