When you think about strong teeth and bones you probably think about cow's milk. But is milk good for your teeth, or are there ways that it can harm them?
With more people opting for a plant-based diet, vegan alternatives to cow’s milk (that have a similar nutritional make-up) are in demand. But the vegan diet is more accessible than ever, and many vegan staples, such as tempeh, are rich in calcium, meaning you don’t need to rely on cow’s milk to get your daily dose.
We’ve spoken to the experts about how milk can affect dental health and collected their best oral care tips for a healthy, happy mouth. If you’re looking to upgrade your oral hygiene routine, our guide to the best electric toothbrushes has a variety of options to suit a range of consumers too.
How does milk affect dental health?
Milk is an excellent source of calcium and phosphorus, which are minerals the body uses for the maintenance of bones and teeth. They are also used for muscle contractions (including your heartbeat) and for normal blood clotting. Calcium is the most abundant mineral found in the body, and 98% of it is stored in our skeleton, which our body uses as a reservoir for the constant remodeling of our bones throughout our lives. For good dental health, you need to ensure that you are consuming enough calcium each day to replenish this reservoir, as this is what your body uses to make enamel and dentin.
Have a look at our feature on 'are teeth considered bones?' for more information about how teeth differ from the rest of the skeleton.
Dentist Dr Sunita De Zoysa explains that milk is rich in a variety of minerals that help to contribute to good dental health. “Milk contains several useful minerals, vitamins and proteins, which makes it a fantastic drink for your health and teeth,” she says. “Milk also contains casein proteins that form a protective film on the surface of your teeth, acting to protect against decay. It also contains vitamin D, which helps with the absorption of calcium and phosphorus from your diet, as well as helping to repair damaged dentin and fighting against gum disease by aiding the immune system and reducing gum inflammation.”
You can read more about is teeth whitening safe if you're concerned you are damaging your teeth through whitening.
As well as being calcium-rich, milk is high in a sugar called lactose (which some people can’t digest). If consumed too close to bedtime and without brushing your teeth, these sugars will act like any other sugar and contribute to the development of tooth decay. The bacteria in our mouths love sugar, and they produce acids that dissolve the enamel over time, which is why it’s recommended that you brush your teeth right before bed.
Dr Tarun Nagpal, a Doctify-reviewed dentist, explains that calcium is important for growing children. “Cow's milk is a great source of calcium, which is essential during infancy for growth and development of your teeth and bones,” he says. “When we are adults and our teeth are fully formed the benefit of milk becomes more superficial, rather than a necessity.”
De Zoysa also says that milk is useful as an enamel-protective drink if consumed after a meal. “One of the most important things about milk is that it helps to neutralize acid or sugar attacks, so it's a helpful drink to have just after a meal or snack,” she says. “As a dairy product it also stimulates saliva production, which due to its composition, has antimicrobial properties and neutralizing ability, and is helpful in preventing tooth decay and gum disease.”
Do you need to drink milk to get calcium?
While milk is the most well known source of calcium, many foods contain the mineral in abundance. Some, such as meat alternatives and dairy-free milk, are fortified with calcium; oat milk and coconut milk are good plant-based alternatives to cow’s milk.
Some dairy-free sources of calcium include:
- Fish – oily fish, particularly where the bones are also consumed, are a good source of calcium. Sardines (with bones) contain 382mg per 100g, salmon has 26mg per 100g and mackerel has 12mg per 100g.
- Plant-based milks – often fortified with calcium as they are used as milk replacements. Unsweetened almond milk contains 120mg of calcium per 100ml, oat milk 130mg per 100g, and soy milk 101mg per 100g.
- Vegetables – green leafy vegetables are rich in calcium. 100gs of kale contains 254mg, beet leaves come in at 117mg per 100g and broccoli has 46mg per 100g.
- Meat alternatives – tempeh contains 111mg per 100g serving, and firm silken tofu contains 36mg per 100g.
De Zoysa says that milk is considered a good drink for your teeth because of the bioavailability of the calcium it contains. “Milk, like other dairy products, is an easy source of calcium and the type found in milk is easily absorbed by the body,” she says. “Other dairy products, such as milk and cheese, also contain easily absorbed calcium. Low-fat dairy options often contain a similar level of calcium.”
She adds: “If you are allergic to cow’s milk or have a lactose intolerance, there are alternative sources of calcium, including calcium-fortified drinks and food (eg soy milk, almond milk, cereals), dark green leafy vegetables (eg kale, spinach), and soybeans.”
Oral care tips
Dr De Zoysa gave LiveScience her top tips for good oral hygiene:
- Reduce your consumption of sugary and acidic foods and drinks to no more than four times a day and limit them to mealtimes.
- Don't brush your teeth immediately after a meal, as your teeth will be softer from the acid and sugar. Use sugar-free chewing gum and drink water and milk instead of fizzy drinks. Remember, ‘no added sugar’ drinks still contain their natural sugars and still count as a form of acid or sugar attack.
- Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste, last thing at night and on one other occasion. Spit out after brushing and don't rinse with water as this keeps a reservoir of fluoride on your teeth.
- Clean in between your teeth with interdental aids such as floss and interdental brushes daily.
- A fluoride mouthwash can be helpful to use at a different time of day to brushing, as your toothpaste will have a higher content of fluoride than your mouthwash.
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Lou Mudge is a health writer based in Bath, United Kingdom for Future PLC. She holds an undergraduate degree in creative writing from Bath Spa University, and her work has appeared in Live Science, Tom's Guide, Fit & Well, Coach, T3, and Tech Radar, among others. She regularly writes about health and fitness-related topics such as air quality, gut health, diet and nutrition and the impacts these things have on our lives.
She has worked for the University of Bath on a chemistry research project and produced a short book in collaboration with the department of education at Bath Spa University.