The Dentist Magazine.

Public health guidelines for oral health are not aligned with today’s eating habits, new research finds

Published: 23/10/2017

Current public health guidelines for oral health are not aligned with our eating and drinking habits, a new report has found. The gap between what and when we eat and drink, and the measures we take to protect our teeth may be a contributing factor to the high prevalence of tooth decay. Tooth decay continues to be a major problem in the UK, placing significant burden not just on individuals but also on dental care professionals, the NHS and society.

Caries is one of the most common dental diseases in the UK. To understand how the issue of high levels of caries among the adult population can be addressed, the Wrigley Oral Healthcare Programme commissioned independent research into the eating and drinking habits of UK adults as well as their current oral health routines. The results have been published in a new report titled Eat, Drink, Think.                                 

Data from the survey shows most respondents (83 per cent) consume at least one snack between meals and almost half (48 per cent) enjoy two snacks or more per day, however no oral health intervention is made after 56 per cent of morning snacks and 60 per cent of afternoon snacks. Taking into account this ‘grazing’ culture, it suggests that our oral health routines may not be sufficient and further interventions are required.  This data reaffirms results from an earlier report on oral health by the European Commission, which found the frequency of snacking in the UK to be above the European average, with respondents from the UK reporting an average of 6.7 eating or drinking occasions per day compared with a European average of 5.4 in 2010. 

While the existing oral health guidelines are followed closely by most people the new research suggests that three quarters of UK adults brush their teeth at least twice a day and over two-thirds visit a dentist at least once a year. With such large numbers already following official advice, a small and simple addition to the guidelines – for example to recommend appropriate oral health interventions after eating and drinking such as chewing sugar-free gum – would build on existing oral hygiene behaviours and help support better oral health in between brushing. 

The Eat, Drink, Think report recommends that the current guidelines should be broadened to ensure that people are taking the necessary steps to protect their teeth when they are most prone to plaque acid attack and when brushing is not possible. 

Professor Tim Newton of Kings College London’s Dental Institute, and author of the report foreword, said, “There is a growing need for the NHS to make cost savings and a greater emphasis on preventive care measures to tackle all kinds of medical issues, including dental diseases. This research and the report findings demonstrate that if there was ever a time for the introduction of a simple and low-cost oral health intervention to be included in public health guidance, it is now.” 

Dental care professionals are in a great position to help change current attitudes, but the report highlights that more support is needed from organisations and public health authorities, as advice from dental care professionals alone may not be enough. 

Dr Ben Atkins, a general dental practitioner, said, “Brushing twice a day remains the single most effective preventative oral health measure, but as the Eat, Drink, Think report indicates, eating and drinking habits have changed and patient’s attitudes to oral health must adapt too. The use of sugar-free gum can supplement existing oral health routines, and this should be reflected in the current guidelines.” 

Eat, Drink, Think findings

The results provide insights into the unmet needs of the nation’s oral health. There needs to be increased awareness of the impact of what we eat and drink on our oral health. Currently, 21 per cent of respondents do not consider the impact on their oral health of what they eat or drink, and 45 per cent believe that if they have no problems with their teeth, they can eat or drink whatever they want.

Although there is widespread recognition of the importance of oral care, a proportion of adults do not regard their oral health as important. Almost a quarter of respondents regularly neglect this aspect of their health, with 22 per cent often forgetting to brush their teeth and the same proportion declaring that looking after their teeth is less important than other aspects of their health.

The survey also explored the awareness of the potential of sugar-free gum as part of an oral care routine. Currently half of respondents chew gum on some occasions (and within this four fifths chew sugar-free gum), but only 16 per cent chew every day. Only 36 per cent of these users do it for oral health reasons; however 42 per cent said they’d be more likely to chew sugar-free gum after being told of its oral health benefits.

Recognised Oral Health Benefits of Sugar-free Gum

As proven in independent clinical research, chewing sugar-free gum for 20 minutes after eating or drinking effectively stimulates saliva, which helps to neutralise plaque acid attacks that can cause tooth decay. 

The scientific evidence supporting the use of sugar-free gum for oral health benefits has been widely recognised and accepted by leading oral health organisations and experts including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the FDI World Dental Federation, and the Oral Health Foundation.