Leading up to my kids’ dentist appointments last month, I felt serious anxiety. I had somehow let a year go between visits, and my four-year-old had never had his teeth professionally cleaned or checked. When we attempted his first check-up at age three, he essentially screamed and hissed at the hygienist, so she just showed him her “magic chair” and sent us on our way. He still hasn’t mastered the art of spitting out toothpaste, so we’d been using the fluoride-free kid stuff, and I was convinced he was going to have 37 cavities when he finally allowed someone to examine his teeth.
Imagine my relief when my son sat calmly and politely in the chair, mouth open as wide as he could wrench it, and the hygienist and doctor both reported that his teeth “looked good.” No cavities! I wasn’t a total failure as a mother after all! I beamed at my youngest as he picked out some stickers and a toothbrush, convinced I had the healthiest, best kids on the planet. I nearly pulled a muscle patting myself on the back.
Then it was my seven-year-old’s turn in the chair. No worries, the kid is really good about brushing, using his electric toothbrush most nights and every morning. He rarely drinks soda or juice, and we work pretty hard at keeping his diet generally healthy. We haven’t bought Pop-Tarts in years! Should be a quick in and out and a pat on the back, I figured.
So both my mood and pride in my parenting took a serious nosedive when my son emerged from the exam room with stooped shoulders and an awkward frown.
“I have a couple cavities, Mom.”
He was on the verge of tears, embarrassed and defeated. The hygienist followed close behind looking apologetic and clarified that “a couple” cavities actually meant FIVE.
The blood drained from my face (a cliché, but I seriously felt it happen), and my son caught my expression in the brief moment when I forgot to hide my shock and horror. He moaned and buried his head in his hands, earning a look of sympathy from the hygienist.
A few of the cavities were in his adult teeth, and ALL of them would need to be filled, she explained to me. She said they’d talked about the importance of brushing morning and night, doing a really good job of getting those teeth clean. I nodded and looked at my son with raised eyebrows, waiting for him to attest that he’d heard her and would follow through.
But in the back of my mind, I was thinking, “How on earth did this happen?”
Since the appointment, we’ve changed a few things at our house. Instead of drinking filtered water out of the fridge, we’re drinking water straight from the tap so we can reap the benefits of the added fluoride. In addition, we’re closely monitoring the timing of our son’s brushing—he had been eating a lot of bedtime snacks after brushing, which probably didn’t help the situation.
But the other day, I spotted an article on BBC.com that has me convinced we’ve got a lot more work to do. The article detailed the release of “Sugar Smart,” a new app from Public Health England designed to help parents track their kids’ daily sugar intake. Kids in the U.K. (similar to their American cousins) are apparently taking in three times the recommended amount of sugar, eating an average of 50 pounds of the stuff per year.
You know what else weighs 50 lbs? This guy:
But do I really need an app to keep track of our sugar intake? Can’t I just keep candy and soda out of my house so I don’t have to worry about it? I wondered (foolishly, it turns out).
I dug a little more, but I didn’t have to go very deep to find a recent article in the Washington Post and about a hundred natural eating blog posts about how sugar has been added to virtually every processed food we eat. I had heard this before, and made some efforts at curbing the added sugar in our diet already, reading the label to make sure “cane sugar” isn’t the first ingredient in our jelly, skipping the flavored syrups in my latte, and steering clear of high fructose corn syrup at all possible costs.
But guess what? My son still has Five. Freaking. Cavities.
So what’s the deal? The BBC and Washington Post articles revealed to me that my kids are probably consuming way more sugar than I had ever realized, even when they’re eating foods we have labeled as “healthy.” We’ve worked hard to keep their candy and soda intake to a minimum, but we’ve never limited their yogurt, bread, or ketchup consumption. I remember breathing a huge sigh of relief when I discovered Z-bars (Cliff bars for kids), because they contain a whole bunch of vitamins and minerals, they provide my kids the energy to make it through the school morning until lunchtime, and they’re easily transportable. But Z-bars—like many other snacks my kids love— contain an insane amount of added sugar. Plus, they stick in the teeth like cement.
A lot of people from my generation and that of my parents try to shrug off the added sugar problem. They make statements about how we consumed a ton of sugar as kids, but we all survived. But if we take a look around, we have to admit we’re not actually doing that well. We are obese, we have diabetes, and our teeth are rotting out of our heads. As an adult, I have a right to choose products with added sugar, to splurge on a candy bar and drink an occasional soda. Heck, I can base my entire diet on sugar, make it the main ingredient in everything I eat, if that’s what I want. And I’ll be honest—I love sugar. Sugar tastes good. Especially when it comes in doughnut form. But I digress.
What frustrates me is how hard it is to avoid sugar. I don’t want my family eating sugar just for sugar’s sake. I want them to eat bread that tastes like wheat, not molasses. I want them to eat ketchup that tastes like tomatoes, not syrup. I want them to eat snacks that taste like fruit, not candy. And I want it to be easy. So yes, there should be an app for that.
The Sugar Smart app is a great idea, but it’s not great enough yet. As a British app, it’s nearly impossible to download from the U.S., and reviewers say that it’s clunky and difficult to use. But at least somebody’s trying to fix the problem.
I just hope they figure it out before we have to fit my second-grader for dentures.