Best (and Worst) Holiday Treats for Your Teeth

The last few months of the year are some of the hardest on our teeth. Face it, you’ve probably hidden a stash of your kids’ Halloween candy somewhere in the kitchen. Before you know it, Thanksgiving rolls around and it’s time for pumpkin pie and candied yams. And then, it’s non-stop Christmas food (and calories) through the end of December. Whether you like candy canes or caramel, there’s a good chance that you’ll be bombarded from every direction whether you’re at the office or just spending time with family.

When it comes to sweets and the damage they do to your teeth, it’s important to take things in moderation. Some types of desserts are “worse” on your teeth than others. By making deliberate choices about what you choose to indulge in, you can avoid unnecessary dental damage or promoting the rapid onset of tooth decay.

Before You Start Choosing What to Eat…

Sugars and acids are “worse” on your teeth the longer and more often they’re in your mouth. For instance, if you’re sipping on sweet tea all afternoon, you’re getting more “sugar exposure” and erosion on your teeth than if you were to eat several pieces of candy in a 10-minute time span.

Contact time and frequency during the day are huge factors when it comes to the damage that holiday treats or candy can have on your teeth. If you’re going to indulge in that piece of pie, it’s best to do so with your meal and then brush your teeth a while later, rather than nibble on it here and there a couple of times between lunch and dinner.

Each time you put food in your mouth, it creates about a 30-minute window of acid and bacterial byproducts. It doesn’t matter as much in regard to your serving size as it does to your frequency of eating it throughout the day.

Long story short: eating something that’s loaded with sugar in one sitting may actually be “better” (aka “less bad”) on your tooth enamel than something that’s less sweet but you snack on it several times the week of Thanksgiving.

Now that we’ve gotten the “fine print” out of the way, here are some of the best and worst foods for your teeth that you’re likely to see on the table this holiday season:

Best (aka “Least Bad”) Holiday Sweets for Your Teeth


Chocolate — From wrapped milk chocolate kisses to chocolate-dipped goodies, milk chocolate is one of the safest types of treats to indulge yourself with. Why? Because chocolate easily melts and washes away from your tooth enamel after you eat it. There’s not a big risk of the candy staying stuck to your teeth for hours at a time.

Pie — A freshly made pie is one of the best parts of any holiday meal. With or without whipped topping, the soft texture is unlikely to do any damage to your dental work or teeth. But be warned: if you’re eating a homemade pecan pie, you’ll want to watch out for the occasional piece of shell (which could hurt your teeth or gums.)

Fudge and Divinity — Ok, we’re playing with fire a little bit here, but softer types of holiday desserts aren’t as bad on your teeth (compared to ones that are hard or sticky.) Fudge and divinity fall into that “not so bad” category, especially if your fudge is free of nuts. Even though they’re both a tad bit sticky, the smoother texture means that once you eat it, it’s unlikely there will be much of it stuck to your teeth afterward.


Cookies, Shortbread, Gingerbread, etc. — Before you go and eat cookies all day, it’s important to remember that carbohydrates tend to feed dental plaque production. The more often you eat them, the greater chances there are of seeing sticky plaque buildup across your smile. But here’s the good news: it’s easy to brush away plaque while it’s still soft. So, if you’re mulling over your choices of dessert at your office party, a cookie or other baked item is fine for your teeth and dental work. Just be sure to thoroughly brush and floss when you get home. Plaque only needs 24 hours before it calcifies permanently into tartar buildup.

When in Doubt: Keep it Soft

Softer desserts, as long as they aren’t too sticky, are easier to clean away from your enamel with a toothbrush and floss. Rinsing your mouth with water throughout the day (especially right after eating) will help to cut back on the amount of plaque and acid exposure you get from any dessert, regardless of how much sugar is in it.



What About Sugar-Free Dessert?

Sugar-free and sugar substitutes can still contribute to acid production, plaque, and tooth decay. Although they’re “better” for your teeth, they’re not all that great on your stomach if you ingest too much of them.



The Worst Holiday Candy and Dessert for Tooth Enamel


Hard Candies — Candy canes, cinnamon disks, ribbon candy, stained glass…you get the picture. If it’s hard, there’s a risk of it doing damage if you accidentally bite down. And let’s face it, even if we tell ourselves we’re not going to bite down into them, we tend to do it without thinking about it. And by then, the damage is already done.


Caramel and Sticky Candy in General — Sticky candies tend to get wedged into your teeth or dental work and then stay there for hours at a time. Even if you’re brushing regularly, there’s a good chance that snacks like caramel can stay wedged into the grooves on your teeth for over a day. It’s almost impossible for saliva to wash it away. And the longer the contact time, the more damage it does to your tooth.


Candied Nuts — Those sweet, candy-coated nuts may seem irresistible, but they’re a dental emergency waiting to happen. The moment you crunch down on one of them could be the split second that causes a cracked tooth and broken dental work. Especially if you know you have older fillings or an area that our Raleigh dentist is “watching”.


Toffee and Brittle — Peanut brittle and homemade toffees combine the worst of both worlds when it comes to hard and sticky textures. Between the risk of biting down and cracking a tooth or getting something stuck in your mouth for hours, they’re at the bottom of the list when it comes to safe sweets to eat!


Liquid Sugars (Cider, Alcohol, Hot Chocolate…etc.) — Liquids pose an entirely different level of risk to your teeth than hard or sticky candy. Since liquids can flow over each tooth, in-between teeth, and into the deep grooves and pits of your chewing surfaces, they have the ability to affect more surface area inside of your mouth.

You might be thinking “well I’m using an artificial sweetener or sugar substitute” …and that’s fine. But even diet drinks and artificial sugars have the ability to create acidic byproducts in your mouth.

Do you have to avoid sweet holiday beverages altogether? No. Just enjoy them in moderation. One or two over the holiday isn’t going to destroy your enamel. But sipping on a couple each day for several weeks in a row definitely will. Always make a point to drink through a straw if you can and then immediately rinse your mouth out with water once you’ve finished your drink.



Be Careful

On the days you decide to give in to your sweet tooth, be extremely careful. Try to avoid chewing with any teeth that are sensitive or you know have older dental fillings. Better yet, schedule a checkup with our Raleigh dentists before we get too deep into the holiday season, to make sure your teeth and gums are healthy. Your routine checkups can help you avoid preventable complications like cracked teeth or abscesses, as long as issues are intercepted as early as possible.



Does Your Tooth Hurt When You Eat Something Sweet?

If for any reason you are experiencing a “zinging” sensation when you eat or drink something sweet, take note. Try to identify which tooth (or at least what part of your mouth) the pain came from. Some sweet sensitivity feels sharp, while other sensations are more of a dull ache.

Anytime we see sweet sensitivity the natural thing to ask is, “is there a cavity in that tooth?” Most of the time, it will be a “yes”. However, there are occasionally exceptions to the rule. Since tooth decay is a bacterial infection that can spread deeper into the tooth or adjacent teeth, it should be intercepted as early as possible. Picking up on symptoms at their earliest onset could mean the difference between a small filling or endodontic therapy.

If you’re looking for minimally invasive, cosmetic dentistry over the holidays, contact Raleigh Dental Arts. Our experienced Raleigh dentists will help you eliminate tooth pain and get your smile back on track before the New Year! Call us today to reserve an appointment.

Tarun Agarwal

Dr. Tarun Agarwal, DDS is considered one of the top dentists in the country. He is a recognized speaker, author, and dental leader. He has been featured on CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX, and News 14 Carolina. Dr. Agarwal has been awarded '40 under 40' Business Leaders by the Triangle Business Journal. He is regularly invited to teach other dentists around the world and recently built a training center within the practice dedicated to sharing his expertise. Most importantly he is a loving husband and dedicated father of three wonderful children. His biggest accolade was being voted 'Best Dad in the World' by 2 of his 3 kids.