SHAPE, Belgium -- Children's Dental Health Month is observed throughout February. The American Dental Association's slogan for the 2018 national health campaign is "Brush Your Teeth with Fluoride Toothpaste and Clean Between Your Teeth for a Healthy Smile." The purpose is to highlight the importance of proper dental care and teaching children good oral health habits.

Children have wide array of food choices. Walking down a super market aisle can be intimidating due to the wide variety of available foods. From fresh fruits and vegetables to processed and packaged foods and soft drinks, each of these products can significantly affect oral health.

More often than not, it's the non-nutritional foods that are conveniently packed, cheaper and quick-and-easy meals. Plus, the marketing firms have figured out ways to attract consumers. Dress up the food packaging with bright colors or have a child's favorite television star be a spokesperson for the product. The pressure for a parent to buy grows exponentially.

Besides, kids know what tastes good. Generally, the first two ingredients in anything a child picks out for themselves is corn syrup and High Fructose corn syrup, code words for sugar. Parents need to remember that they are the ultimate say in what their children are eating.

When it comes to avoiding cavities, there may be something even more important to avoid than those sugar-laden convenience foods: the sugar-laden beverages. The average teenage boy in the U.S. consumes 81 gallons of soft drinks each year. That's almost three 2-liter bottles each week! Sugar alone cannot cause cavities. It's only when bacteria break down the sugar into acid that the teeth start to corrode or demineralize. Typical soft drinks are high in both acidity and sugar content and therefore become a double-edge sword. Even the parents who minimize their children's soft-drink intake are not off the hook. Many sports drinks and juices contain just as much sugar and acid as those soft drinks and can be disguised as good sources of nourishment.

While the type and quantity of sugar our children consume makes up a big piece of the puzzle, the last variable is how often these "sugar exposures" occur. Even if the overall consumption is low in volume, a child who frequently sips on sugary drinks or eats starchy snacks has greater risk of cavities. This "grazing" habit can have a real adverse effect on oral health.

The American Dental Association recommends the following hints to reduce your children's risk of tooth decay:
- Sugary foods and drinks should be consumed with meals. Saliva production increases during meals and helps neutralize acid production and rinse food particles from the mouth.
- Limit between-meal snacks. If kids crave a snack, offer them nutritious foods.
- If your kids chew gum, make it sugarless. Chewing sugarless gum after eating can increase saliva flow and help wash out food and decay-producing acid.
- Monitor beverage consumption. Instead of soft drinks, sports drinks and juice all day, children should also choose water and low-fat milk.
- Help your children develop good brushing and flossing habits.
- Schedule regular dental visits.

Let's face the fact that children are going to eat and drink sugar. The questions remain how much sugar, what types of sugar and how often the sugar exposures occur. Are our children getting the nutritious foods that they need? Parents, it's up to you to lay the foundation now for a lifetime of healthy eating habits and proper oral health.

Army Capt. Nathan Persell is a general dentist at the dental clinic in the SHAPE Healthcare Facility. To learn more about their services, visit http://rhce.amedd.army.mil/SHAPE.