How Junk Food and Sodas Ruin Kids' Teeth in Developing Countries

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Good dental care helps insulate Americans from junk food-related tooth decay. But in a country like El Salvador, where access to care is limited, it's a different story. 

Dr. Karen Sokal-Gutierrez, a pediatrician I know who teaches in the UCSF-Berkeley Joint Medical Program, is involved in a health program in El Salvador that among other things focuses on the dental health of urban and rural kids.

As she explains, when she was a Peace Corps volunteer thirty years ago, the kids had perfect teeth and beautiful smiles. She has a collection of photographs to prove it (she sent me this one).

Today, kids' teeth are rotted to the roots as a result of the introduction of sugary drinks and snacks. She and her students are working to educate parents to take care of their kids' teeth but also to feed their kids healthier foods.

PBS NewsHour has just done a segment on her program (it's a bit over 7 minutes).

This is well worth watching as a case study of:

  • The efforts of junk food and soda companies to sell products in developing countries.
  • The effects of junk foods and sodas on kids' health.
  • The hard work that Dr. Sokal-Gutierrez and her colleagues must do to counteract these effects.
  • The investigative and production skills of recent journalism school graduates.

The segment is also worth watching for the priceless comments of Coke and Pepsi (these come at about 4.3 minutes).

Coke: "With basic dental hygiene practices, people have enjoyed our products for decades without risk to their dental health."

Pepsi: "We believe that parents should decide what their children eat and drink...Any food and beverage with sugars and starches, including some of our beverages can contribute to the development of cavities."

Those of us who have access to fluoridated water, toothbrushes, and dental care don't usually think of severe dental disease as a consequence of drinking sodas.

We should.

Addition: Dr. Sokal-Gutierrez asked that I also post a photograph of what the kids' teeth look like. Happy to oblige.

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This post originally appeared on Food Politics, an Atlantic partner site.



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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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