The Unexpected Cheese That Helps Fight Tooth Decay

The majority of Americans are affected by tooth decay. In fact, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research reports that when looking at U.S. adults between the ages of 20 and 64, approximately 90% have experienced tooth decay. 

In addition to regular brushing, flossing, and mouthwash use, eating certain food items can also help ward off tooth decay. While your first thought might be fruits or vegetables, there's actually a popular type of cheese that can also do the trick: cheddar cheese.

In just one slice of cheddar cheese, you'll find nearly 4 grams of protein, approximately 13 milligrams of potassium, 77.9 milligrams of phosphorus, and 120 milligrams of calcium, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Many of these nutrients can help support our oral health, but in what ways exactly? The answer lies in cheddar cheese's ability to restore balance to our mouth's pH levels from acid exposure (via Dentistry by Dery). High levels of acid can destroy tooth enamel, whether from the combination of sugar and bacteria in our mouths or from eating acidic foods themselves. Let's take a closer look at the science.

Cheddar cheese restores our mouth's pH balance

In a 2013 study published in General Dentistry, researchers looked at the dental plaque pH balances in the mouths of more than 60 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15. Specifically, the study team looked at the effects of ingesting sugar-free yogurt, milk, or cheddar cheese on participant oral pH balances. Measurements were taken before and after the intervention.

Participants were assigned one of the three food items and were given three minutes to eat before rinsing and spitting with water. The researchers proceeded to take pH measurements in 10-minute increments up to 30 minutes after consumption. While a pH balance below 5.5 increases one's likelihood of cavities, a higher pH balance can protect against tooth decay. No changes were observed in pH balances between the yogurt and milk groups, yet pH levels jumped every 10 minutes in those who ate cheddar cheese.

How cheddar cheese boosts oral pH

The researchers theorized that the reason cheddar cheese successfully boosted participant dental plaque pH levels was due to the fact that chewing on the cheese jumpstarted saliva production (per General Dentistry). The more saliva, the more our pH levels stay in check. The researchers also pointed to certain nutrients found in cheddar cheese that are thought to offer enamel protection from acid exposure.

These findings echoed the results of earlier research, such as a 1991 literature review in the Australian Dental Journal that also cited increased saliva production as an oral health benefit of eating cheese. The researchers additionally noted that heightened saliva production also helps wash away more sugar, which when combined with the natural bacteria found in our mouth, produces tooth-damaging acid. It was also noted that chewing cheese may help reduce the amount of cavity-causing bacteria in our mouths. Cheese's phosphorous and calcium content was also highlighted as a potential contributing factor. 

So how much cheddar cheese should we consider popping into our mouths from time to time? According to Dentistry by Dery, just 9 grams of cheese is enough to get our mouth back to a healthy pH level.