There are many reasons why experts say you should avoid sodas like Mountain Dew, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. But there’s another potential side effect that some people may not know about — rotting teeth. The acids and sugars in soda can result in enamel erosion and tooth decay.
This condition is known as “Mountain Dew Mouth” due to its namesake soda popularity in Appalachia — a remote region that stretches from southern New York state to Alabama — and its alarmingly high prevalence of rotting, eroding teeth. A case study published in General Dentistry found if you crack open the mouth of a person who suffers from soda addiction, you won’t see much difference in their teeth from those of a methamphetamine user.
According to the study’s author Mohamed Bassiouny, a researcher and professor of dentistry at Temple University, Appalachia is “ground zero” for soda addiction. Some people treated by Bassiouny in the remote region drank over a dozen 12-ounce cans of soda a day.
“What I saw in Appalachia really crystallized for me the extreme erosion associated with the acids in the beverage,” Bassiouny said.
Appalachia is one of the most remote and poorest regions in the United States, and as a result dental care is harder to get, Priscilla Harris, an associate professor at the Appalachian College of Law, told NPR. People in Appalachia also don’t trust the water in their homes due to pollution and turn to sodas like Mountain Dew as an alternative.
Currently, people can use their food stamps on soda, which is often cheaper than purchasing bottled water. A study released by the Food and Nutrition Service found that in 2011 food stamp recipients spent about about $357,700,000 buying soda from an enterprise that the study classified as a “leading U.S. grocery retailer.”
Many health experts believe the large-scale accessibility of sodas is contributing to “Mountain Dew Mouth.”
“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,” Dana Singer, a research analyst at the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department in Parkersburg, W.Va, told NPR.
But the problem is more than just poverty, poor water quality and accessibility — it’s also a cultural staple to sip on Mountain Dew throughout the day in Appalachia.
“Here in West Virginia, you see people carrying around bottles of Mountain Dew all the time — even at a public health conference,” Singer said.
Mountain Dew traces its origins back to Appalachia, when it was once an old slang term for moonshine. The soda was invented by brothers Barney and Ally Hartman in Tennessee in 1932 as a whiskey chaser. To play up its purpose as a whisky chaser even more and pay tribute to its roots, the brothers dubbed their drink “Mountain Dew.” Even early packaging of the soda featured a cartoon mascot named Willy the Hillbilly, who promised that “It’ll tickle yore innards.”
According to 2013 calculations by Singer, nearly 26 percent of preschoolers in the region have tooth decay, and 15 percent of 18 to 24 year olds have had a tooth extracted due to decay or erosion.
But “Mountain Dew Mouth” is not limited to Appalachia. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated, “Approximately 91 percent of U.S. adults aged 20–64 had dental caries in permanent teeth in 2011–2012.”
Danielle Tarasiuk is a multimedia journalist based in Los Angeles. Her work has been published on AllDay.com, Yahoo! Sports, KCET, and NPR-affiliate stations KPCC and KCRW. She’s a proud Sarah Lawrence College and USC Annenberg alumn.