Foods and Habits That Stain Your Teeth

If you want to keep your teeth white, check this list of foods and beverages that stain teeth.
By David Freeman
WebMD Feature

Determined to keep those pearly whites their whitest? You already know how important it is to brush and floss daily and to see a dentist periodically -- and to avoid smoking or chewing tobacco. But dentists say you should also be mindful of certain foods and beverages that stain teeth.

As you might imagine, intensely colored foods and beverages tend to be the biggest offenders. “If you’re worried about spilling [the food or beverage] on your white tablecloth, you can be sure it’s got the potential to stain teeth,” says Matthew J. Messina, DDS, a dentist in private practice in Cleveland. “The more intense the color, the more potential there is for staining.”

The color in these foods and beverages comes from chromogens, intensely pigmented molecules with an unfortunate penchant for latching on to dental enamel. But the presence of chromogens isn’t the only thing that determines the staining potential of foods and beverages.

Acidity is another factor. Acidic foods and beverages -- including some that are not brightly colored -- promote staining by eroding the dental enamel, temporarily softening teeth and making it easier for chromogens to latch on. And finally, a family of food compounds known as tannins promotes staining by further boosting chromogens’ ability to attach to enamel.

The Top Teeth-Staining Foods and Beverages

1. Wine. Red wine, an acidic beverage that contains chromogens and tannins, is notorious for staining teeth. But white wine, too, promotes staining. In a study conducted recently at New York University School of Dentistry, teeth exposed to tea were stained more severely if they previously had been exposed to white wine. So if you’re fond of following up that glass of Chardonnay with a cup of Earl Grey, you may be giving your teeth a double whammy.

2. Tea. Like wine, the ordinary black tea most people drink is rich in stain-promoting tannins. Dentists say it’s a bigger stainer than coffee, which is chromogen-rich but low in tannins. “Tea’s pretty aggressive,” says Mark S. Wolff, DDS, PhD, chairman of the department of cariology and comprehensive care at New York University School of Dentistry in New York City. Herbal, green, and white teas are less likely to stain than black tea.

3. Cola. Acidic and chromogen-rich, cola can cause significant staining. But even light-colored soft drinks are sufficiently acidic to promote staining of teeth by other foods and beverages. “Carbonated beverages have similar acidity to battery acid,” Messina says, adding that cola-stained teeth are most common among “people who have a can on their desk all the time and sip all day long.”

4. Sports drinks. Recent research led by Wolff found that highly acidic sports drinks can soften tooth enamel -- setting the stage for staining.

5. Berries. Blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, cherries, grapes, pomegranates, and other intensely colored fruits (and juices, pies, and other foods and beverages made from them) can cause stains.

6. Sauces. Soy sauce, tomato sauce, curry sauce, and other deeply colored sauces are believed to have significant staining potential.

7. Sweets. Hard candies, chewing gum, popsicles, and other sweets often contain teeth-staining coloring agents. If your tongue turns a funny color, dentists say, there’s a good chance that your teeth will be affected, too. But unless they are consumed regularly, these sweets probably play a minor role in teeth staining, says Maria Lopez Howell, DDS, a dentist in private practice in San Antonio.

Tips to Minimize Stained Teeth

Ironically, many of the foods and beverages that stain teeth are loaded with antioxidants, which, of course, have key health benefits. So if you’re worried about stained teeth, you might want to cut back on these foods and beverages rather than cut them out entirely. “Moderation and a balanced diet are key,” Howell says.

In addition, consider taking steps to minimize the contact between your teeth and stain-promoting substances. Dentists offer several suggestions:

  • Use a straw. Sipping beverages through a straw is believed to help keep teeth-staining beverages away from the teeth -- the front teeth, in particular. No, you’re probably not eager to use a straw for coffee or wine. But it shouldn’t be too much trouble to use a straw for cola, juices, and iced tea.
  • Swallow promptly. Swallowing stain-causing foods and beverages quickly is also believed to help protect teeth from stains. Obviously, it’s important to chew foods thoroughly before swallowing. And gulping can, of course, cause choking. But don’t retain things in yourmouth for long periods of time. In other words, savor flavors -- but not for too long. “There’s no question that the quicker you drink something the lower the exposure [to stain-promoting substances],” says Debra Glassman, DDS, a dentist in private practice in New York City.
  • Swish with water. It’s not always convenient to brush your teeth after having something to eat or drink. Even when it is, it might be better not to: dental enamel is highly vulnerable to abrasion from tooth brushing for up to 30 minutes after the consumption of an acidic food or beverage. So it’s safer simply to swish with water -- and brush later, once the enamel has had a chance to re-harden. Another way to remove stain-causing substances without brushing, Howell says, is to chew sugarless gum after eating or drinking.