Holiday dinners can be real food fights when it comes to your teeth

We hope your family’s holiday feasts are the best ever … but be aware: all those traditional foods of the season can be a real threat to dental health.

Streptococcus mutans and other threats could be lurking there, just waiting to attack your tooth enamel, and some useful information from the University of Rochester Medical Center brings both good and bad news. It’s true, those nasty bacteria are insults to your dental health in newly discovered ways, but some of the foods you regularly find on the holiday table, like cranberries and even wine, actually offer new leads in the effort to stop tooth decay.

Hyun “Michel” Koo, D.D.S, Ph.D., a food scientist and microbiologist, has been exploring the destructive power of S. mutans and scouring foods and natural substances to harness their ability to prevent cavities. With every portion of bad news he delivers about cavities comes good news about compounds that may help prevent tooth decay.

“Natural substances offer tremendous possibilities for stopping tooth decay,” said Koo, in a classic article on the University of Rochester’s web site. “Our time spent in the laboratory is aimed at harnessing the potential of some of these compounds, perhaps eventually incorporating them into a toothpaste or mouth rinse to stop dental decay.”

The humble cranberry is a real hero

Koo says that the cranberry is a potential ally in the fight against S. mutans, which is a threat to our teeth primarily because of its ability to form plaque. What appears to us as sticky white gunk along our teeth is actually a formidable fortress of molecules known as glucans – building blocks of plaque, stacked like bricks in a wall, rife with bacteria. Koo has discovered that compounds within the cranberry disrupt enzymes known as glucosyltransferases that bacteria use to build glucans. Without its glucans, S. mutans and other bad bacteria in plaque becomes vulnerable. “These molecules don’t outright kill S. mutans,” he said. “Instead, they disrupt the two most harmful actions of this pathogenic organism, acid production and glucan production.”

And wine makes everything better

More good news comes from that delicious glass of wine, or at least the waste in its wake. Dr. Koo and his colleagues found that the abundant waste from the red-wine-making process – materials such as fermented seeds and skins collectively known as pomace that are cast away after grapes are pressed – contains compounds that fight S. mutans. In particular, some polyphenols can inhibit the activity of S. mutans’ crucial enzymes by as much as 85 percent and also reduce the amount of acid the bacteria produce.


Doctor Koo’s research has also showed that S. mutans is even more powerful than scientists have realized, responding readily to changing environmental conditions in the presence of starch and sucrose to thrive in the mouth. His team found that certain key proteins boost their activity dramatically in the presence not only of sugar but also complex carbohydrates derived from starch digestion. “The new research shows how two pillars of the modern diet, starch and sugar, can work cooperatively to bring about tooth decay,” said Koo. “A cookie, sugar-covered doughnut, or a piece of pie filled with both sugar and starch provide the perfect recipe for the bacteria that destroy teeth.”

So what to do when your holiday feast rolls around?

As fun as it would be, Dr. Koo points out that simply eating more cranberry sauce or drink more wine won’t prevent cavities. In fact, what really works is exactly what your dentist has been telling you for years…only more so.

“On the big day, like any day, brush your teeth, avoid foods filled with sugars as best you can, and don’t snack often – and if you do, brush your teeth again,” said Koo. “Consider using a mouth rinse, get some fluoride in there – and be sure to see a dentist regularly.”

And one last thing: Have a big, beautiful set of happy holidays!