Jun 9, 2005 5:44 pm US/Central

They refresh, they re-energize, they re-hydrate, but some popular summer beverages can do something else. As medical editor Mary Ann Childers reports, a recent study finds they can cause real trouble for teeth.

The pictures aren’t pretty. “What’s happening is the enamel is softening, chipping away. You can see with all the jagged edges over here,” cosmetic dentist Dr. Jennifer Jablow said. She is seeing an increasing number of cases of eroding tooth enamel. And more patients like runner Ron Cherry, who’s complaining of tooth sensitivity.

“The sensitivity it is mild, but I don’t want it to get worse for sure,” Cherry said. “As much as I enjoy my drinks, I don’t want it to cause damage.”

But researchers at the University of Maryland say the risk is real. They soaked human teeth in a variety of popular beverages for 14 hours — a period equivalent to about 13 years worth of normal beverage consumption.

Dr. A. Von Fraunhofer of the University of Maryland Dental School said, “This frankly astonished us. It was way, way worse than we ever could have predicted.”

The study, published in General Dentistry, found that lemonades, energy drinks, and sports drinks caused three to eleven times more enamel damage than cola-based beverages. Among the most aggressive: Snapple Lemonade, Red Bull Energy Drink, and Gatorade Lemon-Lime. But flavored iced teas and fitness waters caused damage too, because of additives — especially citric acid — that extend shelf life and give that nice, tangy taste.

UIC pediatric dentist Dr. Indru Punwani said, “It really depends on how you consume these products, to some extent.”

Dr. Punwani questions if a lab study can really recreate the ever-changing conditions in a human mouth. He thinks it boils down to exposure: do you drink your beverage quickly or sip it slowly over the course of an hour or more?

“The faster that this is in the mouth and then is cleaned up by the salivary flow and buffered back to normal, the less your hazard and the insult to your mouth,” he said.

Experts agree. You can enjoy your favorite drinks, if you’re careful about how you consume them.

Dr. Jablow said, “You should rinse with water afterwards, drink it through a straw so it is not contacting the teeth as much. Also, drink it chilled because studies have shown that if you drink it chilled as opposed to warm, the acid attack is not as bad.”

The point is to give your teeth a chance to recover from an acid insult. This is important because the damage is permanent.

Dr. Von Fraunhofer said, “Unfortunately, dental enamel: when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

We contacted the makers of Snapple, Red Bull and Gatorade. Gatorade cited a study the company funded three years ago that showed less enamel erosion in college football players who drank sports drinks. Red Bull called the study irrelevant in real life situations. And we did not hear back from Cadbury Schwepps, the maker of Snapple.

To find out how much citric acid is in a beverage look at the ingredient list. The higher on the list, the more there is. It’s sometimes called citrate. But beware of any acid. Certain medications — like antihistamines and anti-depressants — can make your mouth dry and the acid damage worse.

Carbonation, incidentally, is not a factor. But sugary drinks — even orange juice — if left in frequent, extended contact with teeth will do the same damage.

Mary Ann Childers

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