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Good news from dentists for candy-bingeing trick-or-treaters (seriously)

What parent's face wouldn't turn grim at the frightful sight of their costume-clad youngster gorging on his or her Halloween candy haul?

Every year, concerned Moms and Dads use pre-established limits, pleading and good old-fashioned hiding spots to prevent this post-Halloween scenario. Let kids have their way and their candy will be polished off in mere hours, to be followed by tears, a stomach ache and a mouth full of cavities down the road. At least, that's what most of us have been taught to fear.

Now, dentists across Canada have a different message. Letting kids indulge their sweet tooth might actually help prevent the formation of cavities.

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Something to chew on

According to the simple equation most of us learn growing up, sugar causes cavities. Although the two are definitely intertwined, the relationship between them is actually more complicated.

Bacteria live in our mouths, all the time. When they come into contact with fermentable carbohydrates – sugar is a prime example – the bacteria produce acids that can, over time, erode the enamel covering our teeth. If left unchecked, the acids can eat through the enamel and cause a cavity, which must be repaired by a dentist.

Let them eat sugar

Does this mean that in order to avoid a date with the dentist's drill, we should avoid sugar whenever possible?

Not necessarily, says Dr. Bob Schroth, a public-health dentist and assistant professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg. We can help combat the formation of damaging acids in our mouths by brushing our teeth, or, failing that, drinking plenty of water to clean the mouth. Chewing sugarless gum to promote the formation of saliva, which guards against acids, can also help.

The trouble is that it's much harder to take these protective steps when consumption of sugary treats is scattered throughout the day.

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Schroth notes that every time we eat a meal, the pH level in our mouths is lowered, becoming more acidic. In those conditions, the bacteria in our mouths are primed to eat away at our tooth enamel. That's why dentists often recommend brushing after meals (as well as drinking water and chewing sugarless gum).

For people who are constantly snacking, those pH-level drops are more frequent, making the mouth more vulnerable to damage.

As a result, dental experts say it can actually do more harm to allow your child to take a few bites of candy throughout the day. Their pH levels are constantly dropping and harmful acids are introduced into the mouth. Many children don't brush their teeth after eating a piece of candy, which means those acids are able to stick around in the child's mouth.

"You're setting up conditions where tooth decay can occur," Schroth said.

While it might run counter to conventional belief, it might actually be better to let kids indulge all at once, after which they can brush their teeth and get rid of much of the harmful bacteria.

Of course, that doesn't mean kids should eat an unlimited amount of Halloween candy in the name of saving their teeth. Overeating can cause short-term pain and maybe even set up some long-term bad habits.

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As for the adults …

Many Canadian adults have likely heard that acid is wreaking havoc on their teeth, thanks to toothpaste commercials that claim to protect enamel. Citrus fruits, carbonated sugary beverages and wine are often singled out as the biggest culprits.

But Schroth notes that it's all about context. No one is going to suck on an acidic lemon for hours on end. Acidic fruits, such as oranges and pineapples, are healthy and we should be eating more of them and less processed food, he said. And, like everything else, it's good to brush your teeth, drink water or chew sugarless gum throughout the day to protect our teeth.

"I'd rather have a child eat an apple or an orange with acid than drink Coke," Schroth said. "Common sense should prevail in those circumstances."

The sweet truth

No one is going to argue that eating handfuls of candy is a good lifestyle choice that should be encouraged from a young age. In fact, making a habit of consuming too many sugary foods can put individuals at risk for long-term health problems, including weight gain and obesity. But Halloween is a fun rite of passage and kids deserve to be kids. So instead of ruling the Halloween candy bag with an iron fist, parents might want to loosen their grip a bit and let kids get their sweet tooth on. Just make sure they brush their teeth.

Follow me on Twitter: @carlyweeks

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