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Food facts: What you need to know about acidic foods

The word “acid” doesn’t exactly evoke a variety of happy thoughts. And unfortunately for us, items that have high levels of acidity aren’t found only in chemical labs.

woman drinking lemonade
Acids also exist in the foods and drinks we enjoy on a regular basis — and they can do more damage than you might realize.

The pH scale

Scientists use a scale that ranges from 1 to 14 to determine the acidity or alkalinity of foods. A rating of 1 denotes extremely high acidity, while 14 means high alkalinity and 7 is neutral. Vinegar, for example, is highly acidic and has the low pH of 3.10, while pure water is neutral, its pH 7. Although many foods with a high level of acidity are nutritious for you, they can wreak havoc on the part of your body that comes in contact with them the most — your teeth.

pH and your mouth

Your teeth are covered with a layer of a tough, translucent tissue called enamel, explains Dr. Judy Sturm of Dr. Judy Sturm & Associates. Although many factors can contribute to the breaking down of enamel, it is acidic foods that usually have the largest impact. Foods with a low pH — meaning high acidity — soften the enamel, making it vulnerable to wear. And when enamel is chipped, broken or eroded, it cannot repair itself.

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Which foods are acidic?

Believe it or not, many of the foods and drinks commonly found in our diets are extremely acidic. Dr. Sturm points to wine, juices and soft drinks as being particularly high in acidity. Many fruits, such as lemons, limes, pomegranates and grapes, also pose a risk. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration offers a breakdown of the approximate pH of a variety of foods. Foods with a pH below 4 are considered to pose a high erosion risk; foods in the 4 range pose a moderate risk; and foods with a pH above 5 are considered to have little to no erosion risk. You can use this resource to determine which items in your diet have the most potential to cause damage to your enamel.

The difference between acidic and acid-forming

If you’ve heard a lot of talk about maintaining a healthy pH in your body, then all this information about the damage fruit can do might be leaving you confused. There is a difference between the acidity of a food outside the body and whether that food has an acidic effect inside the body. Fruit, for example, is highly acidic in its natural form and can therefore be damaging when it comes in contact with enamel. But once consumed, it can have an alkalizing effect inside the body, which helps to maintain your body’s preferred pH level. So healthy foods that are acidic in nature don’t necessarily have to be avoided; you just have to protect your teeth so no part of your body suffers any consequences.

Protecting your teeth

toothbrush

So now that you know you don’t have to wave goodbye to your favourite foods and drinks, what can you do to keep your tooth enamel safe? A few simple things: Avoid holding soft drinks, fruit juices and wines in your mouth for extended periods so your teeth aren’t being bathed in acid. Rinse your mouth with water after consuming a particularly acidic food or drink. And because acidic foods soften tooth enamel, Dr. Sturm advises waiting for an hour after consuming an acidic meal to brush your teeth, as aggressive brushing could wear enamel down. With a few easy tweaks, you can enjoy all your favourite treats and still ensure the health of your mouth.

More on dental health

On-the-go dental hygiene: Stay fresh all day long
Common dental issues and how to solve them

Mouth maintenance: What you need to know

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