Can cutting out grains help prevent or even reverse tooth decay? Nutrition Diva explores the science and lore of remineralization.
“I've heard claims that you can remineralize your teeth and even heal cavities through certain diet and lifestyle choices. These claims usually involve cutting out grains and other foods high in phytic acid. Most of the arguments I've encountered so far have been anecdotal. Is there any scientific documentation of this process?”
I’ve been hearing a lot about this, too, Emily! And when I researched the topic, I was a little surprised (and pretty excited!) to learn that remineralization of tooth enamel—and even reversal of small cavities—is possible! But you don’t need to cut out grains, nuts, and beans in order to remineralize your teeth.
That idea dates back to some research done in the 20s and 30s, long before the era of modern dentistry. This was before we knew exactly how cavities (or even teeth!) were formed. Back then, one hypothesis was that cavities were caused by mineral deficiencies and that grains were largely responsible for those deficiencies, perhaps by blocking the absorption of certain nutrients. We now know pretty conclusively that this is not the case—at least, not in industrialized countries.
Those early studies were conducted in Britain, a nation not exactly renowned for its dental superiority. This was long before fluoride treatment and kids’ teeth were basically rotting in their heads. To test the theory that grains were to blame, a dentist named May Mellanby divided a bunch of school kids into groups, and put one group on a grain-free diet. That group got fewer cavities…and confidence in that hypothesis grew.
In the intervening 80 or so years, we’ve developed a much better understanding of how teeth (and cavities) form. New and better hypotheses were formed and tested, and the profession moved on--which is why you’ll be hard-pressed to find much research on cereal grains and dental caries published since about 1950.
How are teeth mineralized
You might be tempted to think of demineralization as a one way process: You start out with a certain amount of enamel on each tooth. Over time, that enamel gradually erodes and when a hole—or cavity—develops, you have to have it filled. But that's not always how it goes.
The truth is your teeth get “demineralized” and “remineralized” several times a day. It’s a natural process that’s not quite as dramatic as it might sound. It just means that calcium and phosphate move in and out of the tooth matrix, in response to changes in the environment of your mouth.
Eating, especially foods containing sugar, tends to promote the demineralization process by lowering the pH in your mouth. But after you eat, the remineralization process begins. Saliva helps raise the pH of your mouth and bathes the teeth in calcium and phosphate ions, which re-enter the tooth matrix and reharden the enamel.
In a perfect world, the two processes are balanced and the tooth remains whole. But if your teeth are demineralizing faster than they can be remineralized, you will begin to develop cavities. So the key is to try to avoid things that speed the destructive process and do what you can to support the rebuilding process.