Pop versus coffee

Dear Alice,

I was having a conversation with my roommates about pop and coffee and we were wondering which is worse for your teeth, the pop or the coffee? And what do they do to your teeth when you drink them?

Dear Reader,

Pop—also known as soda, soda-pop, tonic, or soft drinks— and coffee can have different effects on your teeth depending on how sugary or acidic they are. While both beverages are often caffeinated, it’s the amount of sugar or other sweeteners in your go-to drinks that may impact the health of your teeth and potentially cause dental issues. The bacteria required to break down the sugars in these drinks may produce acids that also break down the tooth’s enamel and hard tissues, which can lead to tooth decay or cavities (also known as dental caries). Drinks that are acidic can also expose more sensitive parts of the teeth, causing them to become yellow or discolored. Read on for more information and ways to minimize the dental impacts of these beloved beverages!

Though the bacteria needed to break down the sugars in coffee and pop can lead to dental issues, some research has shown that black coffee can act as an antibiotic against these more harmful bacteria and can actually protect your teeth. However, this protective effect decreases if milk or sugar are added. Sugary drinks have also been found to lead to periodontal diseases like gingivitis and periodontitis. This is because the sugars in these beverages can suppress immune system responses and lead to more inflammation around the teeth; it’s worth noting that there is limited research on the relationship between coffee—sugar and milk, or not—and periodontal diseases.

In terms of the acidity of drinks, research shows that the point at which a beverage begins to erode your teeth is at a pH between 2.0 to 4.0. This is more common than you may think as one research study examined 379 common beverages in the United States and categorized 93 percent of them as "erosive" (pH 3.0 to 3.99) or "extremely erosive" (pH < 3.0). This means that the majority of Americans favored beverages had a pH less than 4.0. Coffee drinkers will be delighted to hear, however, in general, coffee tends to be less acidic and therefore less erosive than sodas.

Another factor to consider is tooth staining. Whether you enjoy a fresh cup of joe in the morning or a dark-colored pop such as cola with a meal, both of your beloved thirst quenchers might be contributing to any teeth stains you may have noticed. These drinks, along with some teas and red wine, contain dark compounds called tannins that can build up over time and cause discoloration due to tooth enamel’s ability to absorb these compounds. To prevent this build up, you might consider reducing your consumption of dark beverages or outright swapping your liquid elixirs for water. Either way, increasing your teeth brushing routine to incorporate an additional brush (and floss, if you dare) about 30 minutes after finishing your beverage (or a meal) may help remove sugar and bacteria from your teeth as a way to prevent staining and dental caries. Visiting your dentist on a regular basis to talk to them about your dental concerns, should you have them, can also help to keep those bones in your jaw in tip top shape.

Happy sipping!

Last updated Mar 17, 2023
Originally published Oct 05, 2007

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