Earlier this week I appeared in a HuffPost Live debate on the topic of “Mountain Dew Mouth.”
The term blames soda in general—and Mountain Dew in particular—for the Appalachian “region's alarmingly high incidence of eroded brown teeth.”
It’s true that Appalachia boasts some very high rates of tooth decay. But is Mountain Dew or soda writ large to blame?
Claims of Mountain Dew Mouth gained national attention in 2009.
One of my fellow guests on HuffPost Live, Prof. Priscilla Norwood Harris of Appalachian Law School, wrote a law review article that year on the alleged phenomenon. The article, Undoing the Damage of the Dew, is an expansive look at the topic.
Prof. Harris concluded that if Pepsi won’t “do more,” then new regulations (including soda taxes) should follow.
A recent NPR article that revived the issue and precipitated this week’s HuffPost Live segment contextualizes the conversation about “Mountain Dew Mouth” as part of a larger “fight against soda” in America.
That’s the crux of what this conversation appears to be about. It appears to me to be just another battle in the public health community’s fight against soda.
The dental angle isn’t a new one.
In fact, the author of the recent NPR article, Eliza Barclay, refers to her own reporting on a study, published earlier this year in General Dentistry, in which she claims that soda drinkers’ “teeth could deteriorate so much that they look like the teeth of a methamphetamine or crack addict.”
Cracked, the humor publication, reviewed the same study and quickly concluded its claims were “B.S.”
The Mountain Dew Mouth debate is predicated on claims that people in Appalachia drink more soda than do Americans elsewhere and that Mountain Dew, a favorite there, is a particularly nefarious drink.
How do those hold up to scrutiny?
A June 2013 Men’s Health article, Capitals of Cola, lists Charleston, WV, in the heart of Appalachia, as one its “fizz-free towns”—places where soda is unpopular. None of the cities cited in the article as top per-capita soda consumers were located in Appalachia. Instead, America’s top ten soda-consuming cities are found in Texas, California, Western Tennessee, Indiana, and Ohio.
And, according to data Prof. Harris cites in her 2009 article, Mountain Dew is actually less acidic than Diet Coke.
That’s important because it’s acid that’s bad for teeth. But, say experts, soda is no worse in that capacity than a host of other beverages.
"This is any soda, any juice, any milk," said Dr. Maria Lopez-Howell, a dentist and consumer adviser for the American Dental Association, in comments on the HuffPost Live panel about the harm that repeated, continuous consumption of any acidic beverage can cause.
So it’s not that soda’s impact is any different than that of juice or milk.
What’s more, the link between soda consumption and cavities in children is tenuous at best. A 2001 study published by the Journal of Dental Research found an “absence of apparent effects of sugared soda consumption in younger people[.]”
Notably, soda consumption has been on the decline in the United States for more than a decade. Mountain Dew and its parent company, PepsiCo, know that to be true, as a recent Huffington Post headline, PepsiCo Struggling To Adapt To Declining U.S. Soda Consumption, makes clear.
What’s more, consider why people in places like West Virginia may choose soda or juice instead of water. They often don’t have access to fluoridated tap water. And they often fear their well water is polluted. Add to those factors poverty and lack of adequate dental insurance and it’s easy to see why tooth decay is rampant in Appalachia.
Taxing impoverished soda drinkers won’t improve their dental health. So what will?
Thankfully, tooth decay is as unfortunate as it is preventable. To start, there’s education and fluoridation.
Dentists have played a key role in efforts to prevent “bottle rot,” which occurs when parents put infants to bed with baby bottles to sip on overnight and the acids in the milk or juice rot the baby’s teeth.
So better dental health isn’t impossible. But it doesn’t begin with needlessly vilifying Mountain Dew. It doesn’t hinge on the pointless “fight against soda” being waged in this country. Rather, it involves people like dentists and parents and educators working together. That’s worth doing.