Is “Mountain Dew Mouth” Really Caused by Mountain Dew?

Posted on September 30, 2013


First, sodas were blamed for the obesity epidemic.  Now, they’re being blamed for “Mountain Dew Mouth.”  I don’t entirely buy it.

Priscilla Harris, of the Appalachian College of Law, has been battling excessive soda consumption in Appalachia since at least 2009, when she wrote a legal brief blaming the region’s poor dental health on sodas, especially Mountain Dew.  As Eliza Barclay writes for NPR, Harris and her colleague, researcher Dana Singer, are now urging Congress to prohibit the use of food stamps for buying sodas.  “We are using taxpayer dollars to buy soda for the SNAP program, and we are using taxpayer dollars to rip teeth out of people’s heads who can’t afford dental care and are on Medicaid,” says Ms. Singer.

I agree that food stamps should not be used to buy sodas, but not because they “rot your teeth.”  I simply think that a taxpayer-funded program called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) should be used to buy, you know, actual nutrition.  I dearly love my sodas, but even I will not try to convince anyone that they have a whole lot of nutritional value.  Personally, were it up to me, the list of foods that SNAP pays for would be a pretty short, pithy, cost-effective and nutrient-packed one.  Lobster wouldn’t make the cut, and neither would sodas.  But I digress.

So, back to the sweeping statements that excessive soda consumption is causing an epidemic of “Mountain Dew Mouth” in Appalachia.  Just like the obesity case, I will concede that sugary, acidic sodas can contribute to tooth decay; and just like the obesity case, I reject the assertion that sugary sodas are the cause, or even a primary cause.

Singer and Harris offer up some observations about life in Appalachia:

1)  People are seen to drink sodas all day long.  “Here in West Virginia, you see people carrying around bottles of Mountain Dew all the time — even at a public health conference,” says Singer.

2)  Harris points out that many people in Appalachia don’t trust the safety of their well water, which “probably” leads to increased soda consumption.

3)  Due to poverty, there is not much access to dental care.

In answer to their largely anecdotal observations of “signs of a rampant problem,” I’d like to share my own observations about a very similar place with a very similar problem:  Tajikistan.  Like Appalachia, Tajikistan is mountainous, impoverished, and full of brown, rotted teeth.  Oddly, however, I don’t think I saw any Mountain Dew while I was there, and all sodas were imported (although they will soon have their own Coca-Cola plant!).  Let’s compare my observations of Tajikistan with Harris and Singer’s observations of Appalachia:

1)  People favor hot tea.  Sodas are not so prevalent, and many people can’t afford them anyway.

2)  Tap water is not potable in Tajikistan. This does not lead to increased soda consumption, because … again… people can’t afford them.  Instead, they boil water before use (hey, handy for making tea!).

3)  Due to poverty, there is not much access to dental care.

At this point, I’m thinking the lack of dentists has a lot more to do with brown-rotten-teeth syndrome than sodas do.   But let’s look at Lila’s own family for good measure.  My poor Dad, like many people in Tajikistan and Appalachia, had lost many teeth by the time he was in his 50s, and even more as he aged.  He rarely drank sodas at all, favoring black coffee and the occasional beer.  In contrast, young Lila has been drinking Cokes since about age two and still has all her teeth.  Lila’s soda habit can be traced back to growing up with non-potable water; like the Tajiks, we boiled and filtered it at home, but when we were out of the house, sodas were the safest bet.  So what was the big difference between Lila and Lila’s Dad?

Fluoride, and dentists.

Dad, born in the 1920s, was well into his adult years before the first use of fluoride in a city water supply (Grand Rapids, in 1945), and before the first fluoride toothpaste was invented (Crest hit the market in 1956).  Lila, born in the 1960s, benefited from fluoridated toothpaste from the time she had teeth (we did not have fluoridated water until much, much later).  Lila has also benefited from regular trips to the dentist since childhood, something that Dad – a child of the Great Depression era – did not have growing up.

It is true that the citric acid in sodas erodes tooth enamel.  I’m not disputing that soda consumption (or orange juice, or tomatoes, or vinegary dressings, or marinades, or any other acidic food out there) can harm one’s teeth.  I simply think that it is only one part of a larger set of circumstances, and there are more effective ways to attack the problem of tooth decay in Appalachia.  A good start might be to promote better oral hygiene and professional dental care – including fluoride treatments.  This is what my Dad was missing.  This is what many Tajiks are missing.  This is what all Americans before the mid-20th century were missing.

You know what else was missing?  Mountain Dew.

Related articles:

More Bad Science Trying to Promote Panic Over Sodas

Hands Off My Sodas, Nanny Government!