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Regularly brushing your teeth? That would be an oral health no-brainer. But if you really want to give your mouth a reason to smile, it’s time to acquaint yourself with functional foods—foods with benefits beyond their nutritional value.

Just as what you put on your plate can help boost your gut, enhance your skin’s glow, or majorly improve your immunity, so too can certain ingredients help protect your teeth against harmful dental plaque. Researchers have found that a range of foods are packed with antimicrobial agents that can help protect your pearly whites.

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“Dental plaque is closely stuck onto the tooth surface—it ferments sugar from the diet and produces acid, which will dissolve your enamel and can eventually lead to cavities or gum disease,” explains Dr. Christine D. Wu, whose lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry has been on the frontlines of testing around functional foods for oral health. “If you eat food that has components that would affect dental plaque, then bingo! It’s good for your mouth.”

What she and her team have found in their studies is that everyday options can have a positive impact on teeth post-meal. Think: milk (or other dairy products—as long as there’s no added sugar, Dr. Wu stresses), honey, tea, cranberries, and even dried fruits like raisins and prunes. Even more interesting, according to Dr. Wu, is if you treat the drinks on this list like a chaser following a sugary snack (hey, no judgment), they’ll help neutralize what would otherwise be a super plaque-friendly oral environment. And as an added bonus, some can even take on the bacteria that causes bad breath.

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So what takes a food from Clark Kent to Superman when it comes to oral health? It’s all about the antioxidants. “[Plants] have a lot of antibacterial and antifungal agents because they themselves needed to fight off invading fungus, otherwise they’re dead,” explains Dr. Wu. For example, catechin-containing flavonoids—which you’ll find in everything from fava beans and apples to dark chocolate and red wine (cue emoji praise hands)—are mouth MVPs. Same goes for polyphenol-packed proanthocyanidin (grapes, blueberries, pistachios, and cranberries, among others) and oleanolic acid. “It’s one of the many compounds we discovered in raisins that really affects the dental plaque formation,” Dr. Wu notes.

Just make sure you don’t go overboard when filling up your plate. Similar to how your gut needs bacteria to thrive, Dr. Wu stresses that the key is oral equilibrium, rather than wiping out your mouth microbes entirely. “We don’t want to kill all the dental plaque bacteria, because then you’re disturbing the bacteria community in the mouth,” she explains. “You want a constant balance—the good and the bad.”


Articles from The Natural should not be considered medical advice. If you have any questions about your health, please consult a medical professional.