Contagious Cavities

March 30, 2011 at 9:34 am 8 comments

One of the favorite themes of the candy alarmists is dental decay: candy causes cavities! How many times have you heard that one? But it just ain’t so.

From no less an authority than the New York Times, this week’s Science section:

While candy and sugar get all the blame, cavities are caused primarily by bacteria that cling to teeth and feast on particles of food from your last meal.

Your last meal. Did you hear that? Not candy, not at all. It’s food, just plain old food, that those cavity-causing bacteria crave.

And there’s more. Those bacteria? Turns out not everybody has them in their mouths. So some people eat only approved virtuous vittles and end up with teeth like swiss cheese, and others suck lollies all day long and pose as tooth models on the weekend. No, life is not fair.

It gets worse. Those cavity bacteria are contagious. Kiss the wrong frog, and you may soon be enjoying the dulcet tones of the dental drill.

Moms, of course, get the short end of the stick either way. When kids cavities are believed to be evidence of a candy habit, mom gets the blame for allowing her darlings to taste of the forbidden not-fruit. And when we realize it’s all because of bad bacteria?

Infants and children are particularly vulnerable to [the bacteria], and studies have shown that most pick it up from their caregivers–for example, when a mother tastes a child’s food to make sure it’s not too hot…

Bad mother!


Entry filed under: Children and Candy, Health, Myth Busting. Tags: , , .

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark Marshall  |  March 30, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Very interesting, I have heard for years about the cavity making bacteria, and the soon the be released treatment for these bacteria.

    Supposedly the treatment would kill the bacteria and make everyone cavity free!

    It seems like the dental cabal just keeps hiding this development.

    • 2. Candy Professor  |  March 30, 2011 at 10:14 am

      Hmm, I wonder if such a treatment might risk breeding a super-germ that would be unstoppable (along the lines of antibiotic resistant strains of TB and staph). But when I look at my mercury-riddled mouth, I sure wish that treatment had been around when I was a kid!

  • 3. cybele  |  March 30, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    I remember reading a study back in the 1980s that said that cacao had natural inhibiting qualities against S. mutans.

    It does make you wonder if there would be a sort of “probiotics” for your mouth that has some other kind of bacterial cocktail that’s tooth friendly and outcompetes cavity causing ones.

    What peeved me about that article was the last line: “Cavities can be transmitted from one person to another. ”

    That’s simply not true. The bacteria that cause cavities can be transmitted, but not someone else’s cavities. That’s like saying bullet wounds are contagious. Exposure to bullets causes bullet wounds.

  • 4. Patti  |  April 3, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    Music to my ears, this! The Sugar Baby came back from the dentist yesterday with six (SIX!) cavities that need to be filled. Oh, the guilt! I now feel slightly better knowing it’s not necessarily all the fun things I let him eat.

  • 5. Swedish candy  |  April 6, 2011 at 10:30 am

    Interesting blog, very informatative and alot of depth 🙂 I should continue to read it 🙂

    Be sure to check out my swedish candy blog here!

    Take care

  • 6. Loralee  |  April 8, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    From what I’ve learned about candy, it’s not the amount of candy you eat as much as the type that can contribute to cavities. Chewy candy that gets stuck in tooth crevices can feed cavity-causing bacteria and contribute to cavities, while candy like chocolate that does not stick to teeth does not contribute nearly as much to the problem. (Raisins and other sticky dried fruits that get stuck in teeth have the same effect as sticky candy.) I also have been told by a dentistry professor that chocolate inhibits cavities, but since sugar promotes cavities, and we don’t usually eat chocolate without sugar, a Hershey’s bar can still contribute to cavity activity.

    The other thing I learned is that if you eat candy frequently, snacking on it, your mouth stays more acidic, contributing to cavities. However, if you eat a few pieces at one time, brush your teeth, and stay away from the candy afterwards, the candy is less likely to contribute to cavity formation.

  • 7. Ken  |  April 13, 2011 at 6:20 am

    Loralee is correct regarding the amount of time that you feed the cavity causing bacteria easily available carbohydrates–sugars and other foods. While it is unfair to ‘blame’ mothers when a child has lots of dental decay, a direct line can be drawn between the bacterial milieu of a child’s mouth and their mother’s. Research has shown this to be true, even when the mother is not the primary caregiver. It is probably better to avoid words like ‘blame’ and ‘fault’, and just recognize that some families are at higher risk. I can promise you that the researchers have tried for a long time to figure out a vaccination against cavities, but the principal bacteria is not called s. mutans for nothing–it rapidly adapts, foiling attempts to make a single, simple solution to this problem.
    I love your website and the articles you produce. Have you considered a piece on Japanese candy?

  • 8. Joy  |  April 20, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    I did not have cavities until my 30s. And I LOVE candy. Those cavities came after my pregnancy though and so I am hoping my son hasn’t picked up any bacteria from me. We have yet to take him to the dentist but I’ve found some good info and tips on this Mom’s Guide to Caring for Little Teeth. (If link doesn’t work, copy & paste: It’s got info for infancy through the teen years.


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Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure

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Candy in American Culture What is it about candy? Here you'll find the forgotten, the strange, the curious, the surprising. Our candy story, one post at a time.

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