Which Foods Actually Stain Your Teeth?

A good question usually has two answers: a short one that doesn’t tell you much, and a long one that requires a few detours. Here’s the short answer: pretty much any food, especially those with dark pigments, can stain your teeth. Avoiding most of the foods you love, however, isn’t a viable option for most people who experience teeth staining. In light of that, the long answer seems to be the right approach.

Staining and Discolouration

When most people talk about their teeth being stained, they’re talking about some kind of discolouration on their teeth. That can very well be because they’ve been drinking a lot of coffee and/or red wine, but tooth discolouration goes deeper than that.

Your teeth are made up of quite a few different parts, but what you can see is primarily made of two tissues: enamel and dentin. Enamel is a highly mineral, semi-translucent tissue that, on its own, looks somewhere between blue and off-white. Dentin, found below the layer of enamel, is yellow. 

Changes to enamel or dentin can change the colour of your teeth. Enamel, being semi-translucent, is heavily affected by dentin. What’s more, when enamel starts to wear away, more dentin is exposed, making teeth appear more yellow. 

Fluorosis, a condition somewhat common in children, is another example of how “tooth stains” can occur for reasons outside of darkly coloured foods. This condition occurs when too much fluoride is consumed which changes the mineral structure of the enamel, causing small (often almost unnoticeable) white spots to appear.

Don’t Do Acid

Knowing that the ways enamel and dentin interact affect the appearance of your teeth gives some insight as to what foods cause staining. You may know that cavities are caused by bacteria; more specifically, they’re caused by acids secreted by bacteria wearing their way through your enamel.

Acids, whether they’re caused by bacteria or they’re found in the food you eat, weaken enamel. When enamel is weakened, there’s less of it, which means the colour of dentin will shine through, leading to the yellowing of your teeth. In other words, some stains aren’t caused by residue being left on your teeth – they’re caused by your teeth wearing away. 

To avoid enamel wear, skip particularly acidic foods. This includes a lot of beverages, from fruit juices to wine and beer. Tea and coffee are also mildly acidic, but less than the aforementioned drinks – they have their own problems, though. Obviously acidic foods like lemon juice and vinegar should also be avoided if you’re worried about enamel wearing down. 

Most importantly, you should avoid brushing your teeth immediately after a meal, especially if you’ve eaten acidic foods. Brushing can actually push the acid into your teeth if you haven’t waited long enough. A 30-minute break before brushing should do just fine.

The Trouble with Tannins

A lot of people love tans on their skin but very few want their teeth tanned. The origin of the word tannins lies in their historical use – they are used to tan hides into leather, a process that almost always changes the colour of the hide.

Tannins are everywhere – plants use them to protect themselves from insects among other reasons. That means they’re found in wine, tea, and other popular beverages. Tannins are highly pigmented and acidic; the porous nature of enamel means that the tannins can seep into your teeth, staining them. A host of other plant-based foods contain tannins, too, from chocolate to pomegranates – even chickpeas contain some tannins. Beverages that have been aged in oak barrels will also contain tannins that are absorbed from the oak.

A Sweet Tooth

Bacteria eat sugar. Bacteria secrete acids. When you eat a lot of sugary foods, you’re giving bacteria in your mouth a feast. They’ll secrete that much more acid and that will wear down your enamel, exposing dentin. Avoid foods with added sugar, avoid eating too many sweets, and always be sure to drink a lot of water to rinse out your mouth.

Colour In, Colour Out

Teeth are porous; tannins aren’t the only things that can seep into your teeth. When you eat strongly coloured foods, the pigments from those foods can easily make their way into your teeth, discolouring them. The range of foods that falls under this category is very broad; basically, if it’s got a deep colour, it can contribute to staining your teeth. That means anything from soy sauce to a purple smoothie, no matter how healthy that smoothie might be, can cause staining.

Taking Care of Stains

By now, you understand the short answer to the question in the title: lots of foods stain your teeth, and while you can be conscious of your food choices and limit the consumption of some of them, you’re going to eat foods that stain your teeth eventually. Getting rid of stains first requires dentists to determine what caused the stain.

For many surface level stains, it can be appropriate to use abrasion techniques. These techniques basically involve polishing your teeth – getting rid of surface level stains by scrubbing them off. Understanding these techniques can help you understand the difference between toothpastes. Whitening toothpastes don’t contain bleach; they contain more abrasives, which are substances that scrub the teeth. Even without whitening toothpaste, brushing your teeth regularly will decrease the appearance of some stains. 

There are times when abrasion simply won’t do the trick, though. You might, for example, be suffering from too little enamel –  polishing won’t do a thing to solve that problem. One of the benefits of regular dental visits is that your dental team can monitor the colour of your teeth; that way, they can tell what’s causing discolouration and staining. One of the most popular ways of dealing with discolouration is bleaching, and there are a variety of different bleaching techniques to suit your needs and oral health profile. 

 

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