Ice-cold lemonades, sports and energy drinks may quench thirst after a hot run in the sun, but new research shows that many of them wreak havoc on teeth, eroding far more enamel than even sugary carbonated beverages like colas.
Dental erosion occurs when acids in food or drink eat away the hard, protective enamel coating of the teeth, exposing the vulnerable layers underneath and causing sensitivity and pain. To discover the degree to which sports drinks and even lemonade could cause this erosion, biomaterials scientist Anthony von Fraunhofer at the University of Maryland Dental School and Air Force dentist Matthew Rogers placed bits of enamel from extracted human teeth into 13 different drinks for 14 solid days, an exposure period roughly equal to 13 years of normal beverage consumption. They then weighed the bits to see how much enamel the drinks had destroyed.
Five of the most problematic drinks—KMX energy drink, Snapple Classic Lemonade, Red Bull energy drink, Gatorade (lemon lime) and Powerade (Arctic Shatter) eroded 6 to 11 times more enamel than Coca-Cola and 49 to 85 times more enamel than black tea. Von Fraunhofer says citric acid, added to many beverages in this category for tartness, is the main culprit because it stays in the mouth longer than other beverage acids, allowing the high acidity and a process called calcium chelation more time to erode the teeth. There is significantly more citric acid in sports drinks than colas, and surprisingly, the effect of sugar and carbonation in colas is minor in comparison.
Von Fraunhofer says that despite his findings, there’s no reason to discard sports, energy and other citrus beverages completely—as long as we drink responsibly. “The most important thing is don’t sip the stuff for a long time,” says von Fraunhofer. “A lot of people sit at the computer or telephone for hours and sip these drinks continuously—the mouth cannot recover and that’s how you get this erosive effect.” Instead, von Fraunhofer suggests, drink them within a short period of time and rinse your mouth with water soon after.